Short Story - Old Wounds

I've decided to start my blog with some short stories. The first one is called Old Wounds, which I wrote in college in an attempt to reconcile my love of Japanese culture and martial arts with the atrocities I was learning about in history class. I submitted it to a couple of magazines and it was rejected, but with some pretty significant praise. It was too dark for their magazine, I was told, and they were right. So, if you're the sort to need trigger warnings, here they are. This is a very dark story. You have been warned.

 

 

Old Wounds

by

Michael Edelson

 

 

     "Are we ready?" Harmon asked, picking up the little recorder and turning it around in his big clumsy hand. "Ah, okay.” He noticed the little red light and set it down on the black table next to a bowl of oddly shaped pears. "We were talking about your first few days on the job?”

     The old man seemed uncomfortable. He shifted about on the couch and pulled on his collar. His eyes were fixed on something far away. The living room was cluttered with old books and trinkets, stacked and placed neatly. A large open window gave a good view of the old man's garden, where a small bamboo fountain sent water trickling over a dark gray stone. An orchestra of chirping cicadas filled the night air, drowning out the sounds of the distant city. The noisy bugs lived for a short while, their only purpose seemed to be catering to the swarms of birds that gorged on their slow moving bodies.

     "Mr. Nakamura?" Blair attempted to snap him out of his recollection, at least enough so that he could share his thoughts. He wasn't sure he really wanted to know, but he was here to do a job. Besides, he thought, with all the people they’d interviewed in the past few weeks, he doubted he would feel anything at all.

     "Yes...yes..." the old man mumbled, staring off into nothing. "I remember everything.” He shook his head sadly. Blair didn't know how to feel about him, about what he'd done. Nakamura was a subsidized farmer now, tending rice on his little plot with his skinny little wife and his dogs. The Japanese government paid him to harvest his crop and sell it for ridiculous prices at the local markets. Weekend farmers they called them, people who had regular jobs but farmed in their free time. Nakamura was old and retired, so rice farming was all he had left. Yet a very long time ago, he had been something else, something terrible. At least that’s what the Chinese newspapers claimed.

     "It was cold," the old man said. He spoke perfect English, his accent slight and almost undetectable. Blair had read something in his file about spending some time in the States.

    "Cold on that first day," he continued. “It was always cold in Manchuria, but this kind of cold was worse. It ate through my skin, pierced me right to the bone. I couldn't stop shivering, even though the army issued the warmest coats to the officers.” The old man’s eyes clouded as he struggled to recall every possible detail. Blair never understood why people like Nakamura talked so openly about what they had done. It was as though they had made peace with themselves, with God. How that was possible, he would never know.

    As the old man talked, Blair felt himself drawn into his words, perhaps because Nakamura didn't seem to be aware of the two reporters at all as he told his tale.

     "I was sent in right away to meet the commander." The old man said, his lips twisting into a frown. There was a potent memory there, Blair thought, if it could arouse such a reaction after so many decades. Nakamura continued. "I didn't like the look of him at all. A cold, evil man. His eyes cut me apart worse than the weather. I saw things in those eyes, but I had no idea at the time what took place in Unit 738.

     "'No fraternization with locals,' was the first thing out of his mouth. 'Keep your distance. If you like a girl, rape her. Don't talk any nonsense about marriage. There'll be no Chinese brides in my unit.'“

     Harmon cringed. The old man looked at him, pausing in his story, but Harmon just smiled reassuringly and motioned for him to continue, so he did.

     "What could I think? My father did not raise a rapist. He had more to say, though, this commander.

     "'Don't shoot your gun unless you have to' he ordered. 'Guns need to be clean and bullets are to be conserved. If you need to kill a Chinese, use your sword. Understand?’

     "'Yes, commander.' I told him. I would have agreed to anything just to be away from him.

     "'Do you know what we do here?' he asked me, smiling for the first time. It was not a pleasant smile, however, and it chilled me more than his cold stare had.

     "'No, commander.' I said.

     "'Good,' he actually laughed. 'You will learn soon enough.’

     "All I knew was that it was a research facility, a sub-branch of a larger unit several miles to the South. I was to be the assistant commander of the guard company. As an officer I had some power, but there would be a guard captain. I just hoped he was not like this man.”

     "Was he?" Harmon asked, scribbling on a little notepad. 

     "No." The old man hesitated, remembering. "I met him a little later, and he was very different. He was nervous, unsure, his eyes moved a lot. Not at all what I expected.

     "'Good afternoon. You're lieutenant Nakamura?' he asked me. 'I'm captain Takahashi. Please come with me, I'll show you to your quarters. You and I share a room.’

     "As we walked, he handed me a pair of earplugs. 'What are these for?' I asked him. I thought there was little shooting in this part of Manchuria.

     "The captain looked troubled. 'Sometimes they continue the experiments at night. Those are so you can sleep.'“

     "I didn't know what he meant, but I feared...”

     Nakamura's wife chose this moment to come in to the room carrying a tray of sweets and tea. She set this down without a word, smiled, bowed, and left. Blair watched her shuffling little feet as she walked along the tatami covered floor. She was very sweet and quiet, smiling and bowing without saying a word. He wondered if she knew what her husband had done during the war.

     "I apologize…" the old man began.

     "No need, Mr. Nakamura." Blair told him, taking a cup of tea to his lips. "Please, continue.” He picked up one of the sweets and began to remove the plastic wrap.

     "Of course," he rubbed his chin and looked off into nothing again. After a few moments of silence, he began.

     "There was no noise that first night, so I thought maybe I was afraid of nothing." He looked down at his hands for a moment before continuing.

     "In the morning, I was called to the prisoner area for an inspection. I was very disturbed. I had never seen such miserable people. They were so skinny... no, more than skinny, like skeletons with skin. They were naked, dirty, their eyes had no light. I never thought about why there would be prisoners in a laboratory. I guess I was a fool, naive.

     "After the inspection the captain took me to see the soldiers. There were regular army soldiers here, and there were our guards. The soldiers and their officers usually came and went, using our base as a staging area. The only permanent officers were Takahashi, the commander, and I.

     "All of the guards saluted me, just like all soldiers had to, but there was something different about the way these men did it. As I walked up and down the ranks, I saw things in their eyes that I had never seen before. They looked...like cats left all night in a chicken coop. Almost feral. I asked the captain about it later.

     "He didn't want to answer. He was young, a little older than I was, also a university man. He didn't treat me like a subordinate, more like a friend. It wasn't a good feeling, though. It was almost like he needed me, and that's not something you want from a leader.

     "'They all get like that here," he said, looking away. 'They get to do what they want. Women, small girls, small boys. They kill or brutalize the men. Dr. Tanaka lets them do anything to the prisoners, and when he needs new ones...well. A lot of times they cut up some of the ones the doctor says are useless with their swords.’ The captain looked down at the ground.

     "That's horrible!" Harmon exclaimed. "How could civilized men behave that way?”

     "Alan, please," Blair put on a hand on his colleague's shoulder, though he was also surprised at the old man’s frankness. Others they had spoken to were much less direct when recalling the more gruesome details. "Mr. Nakamura doesn't seem as though he liked it any more than we do.”

     The old man smiled sadly.

     "No, I did not like it. I didn't know what to say. I remembered my father at my commissioning ceremony. He was very proud. He said'Today you are samurai like all Nakamura before you. Serve your emperor well.’ I didn't think commanding child rapists was what he had in mind.

     "'Is there nothing we can do?’ I demanded, forgetting myself. Another senior officer would have chastised me for speaking out of place, but the captain didn't seem to notice. Or maybe he didn't care.

     "'No,' he shook his head. 'Doctor Tanaka runs this place, and the commander is his puppet. Everyone does what the doctor wants, and the doctor wants these men brutal. I don’t like it any more than you, but I can't do anything about it.’

     "I didn't realize the importance of what he had told me until much later. It wasn't until the third day that I was called into the laboratory. The doctor, dressed in his white silk coat, stood over a man strapped down to a steel bunk. Two assistants stood next to a tray of surgical implements. Captain Takahashi was there also, and he looked very unhappy.

     "'Is the man sick?' I whispered to him, and he looked at me like I was the biggest fool in the world. Perhaps he was right.’

     "The man, a Chinese, was staring around him, eyes wide with terror. Then the doctor took a scalpel...and...”

     The old man shook suddenly, and covered his eyes with his hands.

     "Mr. Nakamura?" Harmon leaned forward in his chair. "Mr. Nakamura? Are you all right?”

     The old man removed his hands from his eyes and looked up at us.

     "What? Oh yes...yes.. I'm all right. I'm sorry...but...” He shook his head. "I'll continue now," he said. Harmon eased back into his chair, and the old man started to talk again.

     "He cut open his body from right below the neck to the groin. The man screamed so loudly I thought my ears would burst. The leather straps stretched as he fought to get free, seemingly on the verge of tearing. His blood spilled over the side of the bunk, feeding dark puddles on the floor. I moved to stop it, but Takahashi put a hand on my arm.

     "'If you interfere, he'll have you shot. It's what happens here. This is the purpose of this place.’

     "'But why?' I asked, my voice barely heard above the horrific screams.

     "'To test vaccines and chemicals. I don't know the details.’ The man's screams continued as we talked. 

     "'Why don't they give him anesthetic?' I demanded. Surely they could have done something!  What I was seeing was inhuman! 

     "The captain shook his head. 'Anesthetic interferes with the vaccines…or something like that. They can't give him any.’

     "I watched his ribs clamped open, his organs poked and prodded. I listened to his screams, saw the bloody spittle spraying from his mouth. Some of his arteries were clamped so he would not bleed to death too quickly. Finally, after more than ten minutes, he was dead. Doctor Tanaka put down his scalpel and left the room. I never got a good look at his face behind the surgical mask, but that was good. I never wanted to.

     "When I was finally allowed to leave I went to the nearest toilet and emptied my stomach. I had never seen such things. This was not why I joined the army. I thought I would face an honorable enemy on a battlefield, not witness an innocent tortured to death so that some new weapon could be made that killed millions without a single soldier to swing a sword or fire a gun. I could barely stand it, only my sense of duty kept me from running away.

     "They explained it all to me later. The doctors were infecting the patients with viruses and diseases and then testing their experimental cures. The vivisection was to see first hand the condition of the organs. It had to be performed on living tissue, so the people were not killed first. Sometimes they tested various chemicals to determine their effectiveness as weapons. This facility did less of that then others because it was primarily medical. The mere thought that there were other, bigger places like this one sickened me even more.

     "I couldn't sleep at all that night. I kept hearing the screams. It wasn't all in my head; there was another experiment going on. The screams belonged to a woman, and as bad as I thought the man's screams were, they could not compare to this. I didn't know what to do."

     Captain Takahashi just sat there, staring at nothing. I barely saw his tears as I left the room. I didn't know where I was going, I just knew that I had to go somewhere, to at least try to get away and make my silent protest. I took my sword and my pistol; I didn’t feel safe there.

     "I walked down the hall, and before realizing where I was heading I was in front of the laboratory. I didn't really know the place yet, and the screams sounded like they came from everywhere. Perhaps in a way they did.

     "There were three soldiers next to the door, peeking into the key-hole. They were laughing and drinking sake; none of them saw me. They all had army swords with them, cast metal handles and machined blades. One of them leaned on his as he peeked through the hole. Fake swords for fake warriors, I thought. Though these swords should have been made of shit.

     "'He cut off her tit!' the peeping soldier declared, moving aside so another could see. 'Wonder what he’ll cut next.’ They all laughed.

     "'Wasn’t that the girl you had yesterday?' another soldier asked the first.

     "’Yes,' the first laughed. 'But it never screamed like that.’

     "Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken my sword out of its sheath. My father's sword, my family sword. My ancestors carried that sword since Nobunaga took the field to unify Japan. Perhaps he should have left it alone.”

     The old man pointed to a pedestal near the window where a beautifully mounted katana rested on a stand. "My son will have it after me. It has never taken a life unjustly.”

     He stopped for a moment to stare at it. Blair turned also, though Harmon seemed oblivious. The sword seemed so peaceful, just sitting there in the lacquered stand next to a couple of little bonsai trees, as though it couldn't possibly hurt anyone. Art objects, they called them now.

     "I wanted to kill them all." The old man continued. "How could they talk like that? How could they watch that and laugh? They were supposed to be soldiers!  They gave them swords to foster pride and samurai spirit, not to lean on while watching women tortured to death. But these were not warriors, these were animals, animals that had to be killed.

     "I would have killed them then," he said sadly. "But they saw me walk up, and instantly jumped away from the door.

     “They all saluted, and I couldn't bring myself to strike. They were my soldiers, my responsibility.

     "'Get out.' I growled at them. 'Get out before I kill you.’ I raised my sword and they ran away, almost scrambling over each other as they raced down the hall. I sheathed the blade and sat down against the door. The girl was still screaming. I don't know what came over me, whether it was morbid curiosity or simple masochism, but I looked into the keyhole.

     "I saw her, or what was left of her, twitching on the bunk. Her torso was a mess of red, no longer human. The doctor was cutting something from her lower abdomen, talking to his assistants in a calm voice as he did it. She turned her head and I saw her face, her once pretty face, eyes dancing madly. I had to look away.

     "I cried for a long time. After I was done crying, and she was done screaming, I went back to my room. The captain was not there. I went into my bags and took out my dagger. I wanted to kill myself. But as the blade touched my stomach my courage failed me. I pictured myself on that table, my body cut open, and I threw the dagger under the bed.

     "What had we become? The Japanese have always been a harsh people; we had to be, but we were never like this. We were never inhuman. This was not just one mad man that could be killed. This was our people, our nation. I thought at the time that it was only us, though of course we know now that the madness infected us all. The Germans had done things just as bad, and at the end of the war, the Americans bought our research, paying with immunity for those responsible. They let those monsters go home to their families.”

     He hesitated. "I mean no offense...”

     "None taken," Blair smiled. "Things are different now.”

     Nakamura did not seem convinced. He looked at Blair for a moment, then continued.

     "Takahashi came back before morning, his eyes wild. He ordered me out of the room and I heard him weeping from outside. He had been there that night, in the lab.

     “I knew the men sneered at him behind his back for what they considered his 'weakness,' but at that moment my respect for him deepened. He would have been a great leader, if they had sent him to war. More importantly, he was a good man. His presence helped me stay sane. If I was the only one that cared about what was happening there...”

     The old man shook his head and sighed.

     "I just don't think I would have made it through the first few days.”

     "Couldn't you just request a transfer?" Harmon asked, not seeming to believe the old man's plight. Blair knew things were not that simple.

     The old man shook his head. "A Japanese officer does not ask for a transfer. He serves where he is sent. I had no choice, and leaving never occurred to me. I stayed.

     "The next day we went on a patrol. We had orders to bring back ten prisoners. Captain Takahashi had delegated the duty to me, and gave me ten men to carry it out. I resented him for it, but I did understand him. If I had been the captain, I would have made him do it.

     "We went out early in the morning. The snow was piled thick, and the soldiers had on so much clothing that their faces were covered. This made it easier for me to be around them.

     "The sergeant explained to me that we just went into a house and pulled people out. That was how we found prisoners. He also said that the doctor had asked for at least four children this time. Healthy ones.

     "I had to give the orders. It killed me, but I had to do it. What were the alternatives? Would I be the next one on that table? If I could save these people by sacrificing myself then I would have. But if it was not me giving the orders, it would besomeone else. Those people would still die.

     "I left it up to the sergeant which house to raid, it was not a decision I could have made. I didn't even look, and I tried not to hear the screams of the people they dragged out into the street. One girl was wearing only a thin nightdress. They ripped this off of her and threw her down to the ground, the snow clinging to her shivering body. One soldier started to urinate on her as she lay shaking by his feet and the others laughed. Some of his urine froze on her skin, leaving sheets of yellow ice.”

     Harmon cringed and looked away, his face pained. Blair clenched a fist. Such senseless brutality. If only the Japanese were unique in this, it could have been easy to hate and lay blame as he was sure Harmon did. Blair knew better, however. He had served in Viet Nam, had seen things. Maybe that was why he was so caught up in Nakamura’s story.

     The old man continued.

     "I watched him empty his bladder on the poor girl who was weeping and trying to shield her face. She looked up at him, and her eyes seemed to ask 'why?’ There was no answer. At that moment, I lost control.

     "I took the butt of my rifle and struck the soldier in the back of the head. He crumpled onto the ground. The others stopped laughing and looked at me. They saw my anger. For a soldier to touch an officer was death, but an officer could kill a solider if he wanted to. They backed away and the sergeant formed them into a line. Some of them picked up their unconscious comrade and slung him over their shoulders.

     "The girl was dying in the cold, so I took off my overcoat and put it over her freezing body. She looked up at me without understanding. I helped her stand and she took my hand. She was young, and would have been pretty had her face not been red and twisted with pain. She was in her teens, maybe sixteen or seventeen, maybe a little less. Her feet were in the snow and she had no shoes. I could see her toes turning blue. I was strong, so I picked her up and wrapped her body in the coat. I was very cold, but it was only discomfort. For her, it was a matter of survival. It was only half a mile to the base.

     "Takahashi saw us coming, but he did not seem to see the girl. I had expected him to say something, but he just watched as I put her into the cell with the others. When we were alone, he called me aside.

     "'They found something in the snow this morning while you were gone.’ His eyes were intent, focused on something far off. I had never seen him like this; he was visibly disturbed, yet at the same time, there was something else. He seemed anxious.

     "'What was it?' I asked him.

     "'A pigeon. Frozen solid. It had a note on its leg.’

     "’What did the note say?’ I didn't think the army still used pigeons, but then I didn't think the army pissed on freezing girls. I was too bitter and too heartbroken to care much about Takahashi's message. Until I saw it, that is.

     "I read the note. It was written on leather. Deerskin, I think, and it was very old. The characters were archaic, but both Takahashi and I were educated men. Still, we could barely read them.

     "The note read:  'Sanada-sama, we have been held up in Korea because of the weather, but we are on our way and will arrive within a few days. The horses are not good in the mountains and the Chinese are made of ice, they ignore the cold. Crossing was not easy. We will make all possible haste, as we look forward to carrying out our purpose. Signed, Saigo Nobuyuki.

     "'How could this have been frozen in the snow? Is it never summer here?’ I asked, bewildered. 'This is at least 400 years old!’

     "Takahashi looked crazed. 'It hasn't been here.' he cried. 'The snow melts in the summer. This message came today!’

     "'Don't be ridiculous!' I told him. 'This is old!  From Hideyoshi's invasion!  Maybe some joker put it here.’ But I didn’t believe that. The soldiers most likely didn't even know that Hideyoshi had ever invaded Korea. I would not have been surprised if some of them didn't even know who Hideyoshi was.

     "’We have wronged our ancestors!' Takahashi whispered insanely.

     "I wanted to slap him. He was obviously so guilt-ridden he was starting to lose his mind. How long before I joined him, I wondered.

     "I couldn't stop thinking about the girl, and I soon forgot about the note. Whatever was happening here, a 400 year old note wasn't going to help anyone. I went to the cells where she was kept.

    "She looked up at me, cautious, not knowing what to expect. She thought I was there to rape her. I had brought some food with me, but it did not seem right to give it only to her. I went back to the kitchen and took some rice. The cook didn't question me, he couldn't, because of my position. I took the rice and some water back to the cell and gave it to the new prisoners, saving the biggest portion for the girl. She stared at me with gratitude. And she said, in Chinese, 'thank you.’ My Chinese was good, but I would have known what she was saying had I not understood a word.

     I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl that night. I didn’t sleep much in that place, and what sleep I got was usually plagued by nightmares, horrific images of suffering and blood. That night, however, all I could see was her face, smiling at me as I gave her the rice. I didn’t sleep, not fully, but I did rest, and for that I was thankful. Takahashi, however, slept like an infant. There was no muttering from him that night, no tossing and turning on his cot. I was glad for him, and perhaps a little envious that I did not share whatever madness gave him such a peaceful night.

     "The next morning, they found another note. This time, the commander had seen it and he had called Doctor Tanaka. Takahashi had told them of the first note, but it was nowhere to be found. He claimed he put it in the office and the soldier on duty at the time said he had seen the captain stuff it into a drawer. But as mysteriously as it had come, it was gone.

     "The second note was even more peculiar than the first, and it was attached to a similar frozen pigeon. It read'Sanada-sama, we are only two days from the camp. Our swords sing with anticipation and even seem to quiver in their sheaths. We lost two horses and one man on the way, but morale is good and our supplies hold out. We will bring back the heads of the dishonored and present them to you on pikes. Signed, Saigo Nobuyuki.’

     "The doctor was bewildered, and he took the note to ponder as an intellectual mystery. The commander mentioned that it might bring him prestige if he brought it to the universities back home and demanded that the first note be found. The soldier who was on duty when Takahashi put the note away was arrested and detained. Whether he had stolen it or fallen asleep on duty, his punishment could have been severe. After several hours, however, the commander calmed down and grudgingly released him. He did so on his own, for neither Takahashi nor myself interfered at all on the man's behalf. Both of us would have gladly watched him or any of the others executed.

     "Takahashi, well, he almost completely lost his mind after seeing the second note. He rambled on and on that 'they' were coming to kill us all. I covered for him, as he neglected almost all of his duties. I tried to calm him down, but he would have none of it. I was the only one he would talk to about this. As crazy as it sounds, I swear the he seemed happy that someone was coming to butcher us. I had never seen him so certain, so full of purpose. He kept saying over and over again that our past would redeem us. I concluded that he finally had more than he could take and snapped, and I decided that I would continue to cover for him as long as it took. I think he would have done the same for me.

     "That night, the doctor was conducting experiments with frostbite. He had the young children I had brought from the village out in the cold until they were almost dead and completely frostbitten, then he would bring them into the laboratory to test various cures. One boy kept closing his hands and hiding them under his armpits, so the doctor ordered my soldiers to stick large sewing needles in his middle fingers so he could not bend them.

     "I couldn't bear to watch it so I went to the cell and took the girl back to my room. Takahashi was not around, so she and I were alone. She was sure I wanted to rape her, but because I had been kind to her she started to take off her nightshirt. I stopped her. I only wanted her company. She was a normal human being, not touched by this madness, at least not yet. I made her some tea and gave her some more rice. She was so skinny!  Her breasts were very small and her hips were straight, yet she was pretty and I liked her. I think she was as desperate as I was for companionship.

     "Afterwards she ate she told me about herself. She was a farmer's daughter, all of her brothers had been either killed or taken by my men. She didn't know what happened to them here, and I didn't want to tell her. I was, after all, a Japanese soldier. Her name was Ling Ling, and she was sixteen years old. When my soldiers dragged her out of the house, she had been washing her hair.

     "I had to take her back into the cell in the morning, because Takahashi came back and said that I could take her if I wanted to but I could not keep her in the room. It wasn't that he cared, he explained, but if the doctor or the commander caught her there in the day-time, it would be trouble. 'No fraternization' the commander had said. Only rape was allowed here.

     "I gave the girl...I didn’t want to use her name...I gave her some food and water for her and the others and put her back in the cell. Using her name would mean I could never put her back in there no matter what the doctor said. The girl was supposed to be in the cell, Ling Ling was supposed to be at home with what was left of her family; that was just how it was. I would take her out the next night again. She was somehow more important to me than anything else. It didn't make sense, but it didn't have to. Everything around me was twisted and evil. Everything but her. She had just been washing her hair. In my dreams I washed the yellow icicles from her face.

     "My duty for the day was to stand in the lab and watch more vivisections. Doctor Tanaka thought that it would harden us, and besides, it was possible for prisoners to break free. Poor Takahashi looked ready to die, plainly unable to hide his shivering.

     "I don’t need to talk about what he did, it was more of the same, each event more horrible than the one before.

     "Why I didn't do anything I don't know. It's so easy to just stand there and watch, in the back of my mind I was thankful that it was not me under that scalpel.

    “When I was finally allowed to leave I went straight to the holding cells and got the girl. I took her to my room and cried in her arms. That's all I did all night, just held her and wept. Takahashi didn't say anything, he didn't even seem to notice either of us. He just stared up at the ceiling and kept mumbling about the samurai.

     "I wondered if he was right. I wanted him to be right, more than anything. What we had done here, it was worse than a disgrace. It was the coldest darkest thing in the world dragged out of its cave and brought out where it could eat the hearts of men. It had no mercy, no compassion, its evil was its disregard for the lives and emotions of others. When I was a child, I saw a boy in my village throwing rocks at a cat. I sent him home with a black eye, and his father had come to our house to complain. My father acted very angry with me, but when the man left he took me aside and told me that he was very proud. The strong should protect the weak, he had said. What would he think of me now, standing by while people were cut apart?

     "I wanted, perhaps even more than crazy Takahashi for Hideyoshi's samurai to come up out of their graves and kill us all. To end this forever. It was their names we were desecrating here, their essence. In the name of conquest, as they had come, we came here and did this. They not been saints. Real people did bad things sometimes, not like in stories. But this was something else entirely.

     "The next morning, I had to supervise a detail that dumped bodies into a pit to be buried. I recognized the boy who had wanted to bend his fingers. His skin was all cracked and peeling because they had tried to heat him with scolding water after he was frostbitten. I caught a glimmer from the shiny metal pin that was still in his finger before the soldiers dumped pumice on the bodies.

     "While I watched the dead covered by dirt, an alarm sounded by the main gate of the complex. I left the soldiers to their work and went to investigate. Some Chinese person, or so the guards claimed, had shot arrows into the wall of one of the buildings. The guards on duty hadn't seen anything except the flying arrows, but they pulled them out of the wall and showed them to me. They were Japanese arrows, the whistling kind that were used to signal. I had seen some on display at a neighbor's house when I was a boy. I didn't care at all at the time, there were other things on my mind.

     "The doctor was performing more experiments, and once more I had to watch. I walked to the room like a prisoner to the hangman’s noose, waiting for the rope to snap my neck. I didn’t know how much more of it I could bear before I became as crazy as my captain. The hallway was long, each step was an agonizing process of fighting fear and loathing. Finally I wound up in the room, taking my place by the guards. Takahashi was conspicuously absent, and I was glad for him.

     "They brought someone in. It was a skinny little girl, terrified and trembling. My own numbed mind took a moment to realize it was the girl. It was Ling Ling.

     "I saw the smiles on the two guards’ faces. Apparently they knew I spent time with her, and they had most likely told Tanaka. They put her on the table and strapped her down. They wouldn’t have had time to infect her with anything, this was to be done purely for my benefit.

     "I was shocked. I didn't know what to do. She was my one light in an ocean of darkness. Would I stand by and let her die like I did for the others? Would my father have done the same? Yet what could I do? There were faces in the fog that covered my world, aging faces of long dead heroes, glaring sternly and condemning with their silence.

     "Tanaka took out a scalpel and ripped open her dirty dress. With a piece of cotton soaked in alcohol, he wiped some of the dirt off of her skin. His hand callously shoved some of her long black hair away from her neck. The hair she had wanted to wash would soon be covered in blood. Did he even know that she was a person? At that moment the girl realized what was about to happen, what all the screaming she had heard here meant. Tears poured out of her eyes like water from a tap. She began to sob hysterically. She turned to me with a pleading look, her eyes wild. She said something in Chinese, then called out my name.

     "The scalpel came down just below her chest and a drop of red trickled down her white skin. The scalpel moved and her skin parted, red flesh underneath.

     "Blood splashed all over her torso as meat and bone were cut. Her eyes opened wide, staring in disbelief at the severed flesh. But it was not her flesh.

     "Doctor Tanaka's head fell on her chest, a stream of crimson flowed between her breasts. His body collapsed in a heap at my feet, my bloodstained sword held tightly in both trembling hands. Ling Ling stared in horror at the blood, slowly realizing that most of it was not her own.

     "I didn't really know what I was doing, but I turned to the two soldiers, and before the first could move I raised my sword and cut him down, splitting his shoulder and cutting open his chest. Pulling the ancestral blade free I turned to the second guard.

     "Paralyzed with fear, he fumbled for his rifle as my right hand sent the sword point smashing into his face. His cheekbone shattered under the force and the point cut into his mouth. I pulled out the bloody sword as he clutched his face, screaming in pain and terror as his blood flowed through the cracks between his fingers. I finished him by splitting his skull, then wiped my sword on a medical cloth.

     The two assistants were huddling in the corner, mumbling incoherently. They were guilty also, but they were so pathetic I could not bring myself to use my sword on them. I took out my pistol and shot the first in the nose. He wheezed and kicked for a moment as the other watched in terror. I shot the second in his stomach, then his head. One of his eyes bulged and popped and he died.

     "I cut Ling Ling loose. She looked at me, and all I could see in her expression was bewilderment. I felt foolish, because I enjoyed that look, as I had enjoyed killing the doctors and soldiers. They would kill us both, of course, when they came running. There was nothing we could do, nowhere we could go.

     "Just then I heard some sort of commotion outside, the whining of horses, the shouts of men, and dying screams. I didn't think of it at the time, but there weren't any horses. They had some in the village, maybe they were from there.

     "I thought that this was our chance. It sounded like the Chinese had attacked the base. I took the girl to a storage closet and barricaded the door. We sat there, huddling together, until the noise had died down, and many hours passed by. The cut on her chest was small and stopped bleeding after I tied a cloth around it.

     "When I thought it might be safe, we left the closet.

     "I was not prepared for what I saw. There were bodies everywhere; guards, research assistants, the commander. They were all dead; they had been cut, some almost completely in half. Others were shot by arrows.

     I went to the prison area to let the Chinese out, but someone had beaten me to it. The doors were open and the prisoners were nowhere to be seen. None of the bodies that littered the ground belonged to them.

     I decided that I had to leave, and so I went to my room to collect my things. I found Takahashi there, his headless body sitting on its heels, dagger planted firmly in his gut. Who had cut off his head? I wondered. It really didn't matter. He had died honorably, as no one else in this place had. I knew he could never have lived with what he had seen, what he had done. I didn't see his head, but I knew that if I did there would be a smile on his lips. This was the best end for him.

     I was not sure my situation was much different. I had the girl, however, and someone had to take care of her now that her family was dead. Perhaps help make up for what was done to her people, if only just a little. Without looking too long or too hard, or caring too much what had really happened, I took Ling Ling and left. The war was over in just a few weeks, and I returned home.”

     "What happened to the girl?" Harmon asked, picking up the tape recorder.

     "She is still alive today," the old man said, smiling briefly. "She married and has many children.”  

     "That was a remarkable story, Mr. Nakamura" Blair said, standing up. Harmon shut off the tape recorder.

     The old man smiled. "Thank you. Few would have listened. It's a story that needed to be told.”

     "Yes,” Blair agreed. "It is. Forgive our rudeness, but I'm afraid we must leave now. Our plane leaves very soon and we still have to return the rental car. Good day, Mr. Nakamura, and thank you for your time.”

     "Good day" the old man said.

     "We'll call you to let you know how it goes.” Harmon and Blair shook the old man's hand and left his home, exchanging pleasantries with his wife on their way out.

     Once outside, they walked on the dirt road, headed for their car. The night was quieter now, and the distant sounds of the city could barely be heard. Blair felt as though he had stepped out of the past. He sighed, breathing in the cool night air.

     "What a crazy old man," Harmon said sharply, his eyes wide to catch the faint moonlight as he reached for a pack of cigarettes. "Where did he come up with such crap? He must be so guilt-ridden he made the whole thing up just to keep from going mad. Like that poor Tashikashi.”

     "Takahashi. And it's not so crazy," Blair said. "Not if you read the file.”

     "What are you talking about?” Harmon demanded, lighting his cigarette. "Don't tell me you believe that old nut?”

     Blair shrugged. "He was stationed in Unit 738. It was a smaller sub-complex not far from the main research center. When our relief forces got there, they found a bunch of Japanese bodies hacked to pieces. They thought the locals must have done it, but they couldn't find anyone who knew anything about it. And some of the things they saw, like bodies cut nearly in half, or guns that were fully loaded and hadn’t been fired. They found stuff too, like those arrowheads he told us about. All authentic and very old. They couldn’t explain any of it, so they just took lots of photos.”

     "You're not saying..." Harmon began.

     "I don't know, Alan. Whether Nakamura and Takahashi just went nuts and killed everybody there, or if it really was long dead samurai that came back from the grave to right the wrongs, it doesn't matter. Justice was done. That's what counts.”

     "You’re as nuts as that old man is.”

     "Come," Blair said. "I have some of the records in my carry-on. I'll show you some of the photos when we’re on the plane."

     The two men got into their car and drove off, while the old man watched them from his house. When they were gone, he took his sword from the rack and pulled it from its sheath. Admiring the beauty of the blade in the moonlight, he began to weep.

     "What is it?" his wife came to him and knelt by his side.

     "Nothing, don't worry yourself.” He dried his eyes with his sleeve.

     "Did those Americans upset you?" she asked, stroking his white wispy hair.

     Putting away the sword, he opened the folds of her kimono and parted her undergarment. His fingers delicately caressed a barely noticeable scar a few inches below her sternum.

     "Why do you call back old wounds?" she pulled away and closed her kimono. After retying her sash, she took his head in her hands and pressed it to her chest.

     "The wounds call me," he whispered and began to weep once more.