Five samurai crept forward with a scuffle of sandals, eyes lit like opals by a late setting sun. A bloody haze flooded the alley, tinting street banners red, soaking drab wooden shops and houses in a crimson wash.
The story was tragic, true, profoundly satisfying. Lord Asano had been taunted by the unscrupulous Lord Kira into drawing a sword in the shogun's presence, an act punishable by death. He was beheaded, his estate confiscated and his retainers dispersed as ronin, wandering samurai with neither home nor allegiance. Although the evil Kira went unpunished, he watched the samurai, especially their captain, Oishi, for the slightest sign that they plotted revenge. And when, after two years, Kira's vigilance finally relaxed, on a snowy December night, Oishi gathered the forty-six other ronin he trusted most, scaled the walls of Kira's palace, hacked the guards to pieces, hauled Kira himself from his hiding place and cut off his head, which they carried to the grave of their dead Lord Asano.
Gen, the strongest and fastest boy, played Oishi, his leadership marked by the aviator's goggles he set high on his head. Hajime, second in command, had a face round as a pie pan and wore a baseball catcher's quilted vest as his suit of armor. Tetsu wrapped muslin around his waist, the style of a criminal in training. The Kaga twins, Taro and Jiro, were rotund boys in raveled sweaters. Both were ready to eat nails for Gen if he asked. Each of the five boys swung a bamboo rod for a sword, and each was deadly serious.
Gen motioned Hajime to look around the ragpicker's cart, Tetsu to search among the sacks stacked outside the rice shop, the twins to block any escape from a side alley of brothels and inns. Prostitutes watched from their latticed windows. It was summer, the peak of a warm afternoon, with neither clouds nor customers in sight, shabbiness plain, the city's poor clapboard houses huddled like a hundred thousand boats battered and driven by storm from the bay to founder along rivers, canals and filthy sluices, here and there a glint of gilded shrines, at all levels laundry rigged on poles, and everywhere the scurrying of children like rats on a deck.
"Kira!" Gen called out. "Lord Kira, we know you're here!"
A whore with a face painted white as plaster hissed at Tetsu and nodded through her bars to a pile of empty sake tubs at the alley's end. Gen approached with wide-apart legs, his bamboo sword held high over his head with both hands. As he brought it down, the tubs thumped like drums. His second stroke was a thrust. The tubs rolled away and Harry squirmed out, his ear pouring blood.
Tetsu jabbed at Harry. The twins joined in until Harry swung his own rod and drove them back. Harry wore two layers of woolen sweaters, shorts and sneakers. He could take a blow or two.
"Submit, submit," Tetsu screamed, whipping up his courage and raining down blows that Harry had no problem deflecting. Gen swung his pole like a baseball bat across Harry's leg, dropping him to one knee. The twins synchronized their blows on Harry's sword until he threw a tub at their heads and bolted by Tetsu.
"The gaijin," Hajime shouted. "The gaijin is getting away."
This always happened. No one wanted to be the vile Lord Kira. Harry was Kira because he was a gaijin, a foreigner, not Japanese at all. As soon as the hunt began in earnest, the fact that he was a gaijin was reason enough for the chase. Harry's hair was as closely cropped as the other boys'. He went to school with them, dressed and moved exactly like them. Didn't matter.
Down the street, a storyteller in a dirty jacket had gathered smaller kids around his paper slide show of the Golden Bat, champion of justice, a grotesque hero who wore a skull mask, white tights and a scarlet cloak. Harry slipped between them and the cart of an orange-ice vendor.
"It's going for the wagon," Hajime said. A gaijin was always "it."
Harry ducked around the ragpicker's teetering wagon and between the legs of the wagon's swaybacked horse, tipping a sack at the rice shop and pausing only long enough to whack Tetsu's shin. The twins weren't fast, but they understood commands, and Gen ordered them to block the doorway to a peep show called the Museum of Curiosities. Hajime threw his rod like a spear to catch Harry in the back. Harry stumbled and felt a hot, damp stab of blood.
"Submit, submit!" Tetsu hopped on one leg because the muslin had started unwrapping from his stomach from the effort of the chase.
"Got it!" Hajime tripped Harry, sending him rolling over the ground and through an open door into the dark yeasty interior of a bar. A workman drinking beer at the counter stood, measured his boot and kicked Harry back out.
The action had drawn the twins from the peep-show door, and Harry raced for it. The peep show itself was a gallery of muted lights, "mermaids" that were papier-mâché monsters stitched to fish and "exotic nudes" that were plaster statues. Harry backed up the stairs past the peep-show entrance, where constricted space meant he faced only one attacker at a time. The twins squeezed forward, falling over each other to reach Harry. Gen took their place, goggles over his eyes to show he meant business. Harry took a stiff jab in the stomach, another on his knee, gave a short chop on Gen's shoulder in return but knew that, step by step, he was losing ground, and the stairway ended on the second floor at a door with a sign that said NO ENTRANCE. THIS DOOR IS LOCKED AT ALL TIMES.
Blood ran down Harry's neck and inside his sweater. At school their one-armed military instructor, Sergeant Sato, gave all the boys bayonet practice with bamboo poles. He would march them onto the baseball diamond dressed in padded vests and wicker helmets to train them in thrust and parry. Gen excelled in attack. Since Harry, the only gaijin in school, was always chosen as a target, he had become adept at self-defense.
Hajime launched his spear again. Its tip raked the crown of Harry's head and bounced off the door. Gen broke Harry's pole with one stroke and, with another, hit Harry's shoulder so hard his arm went numb. Pressed against the door, Harry tried to defend himself with the halves of the pole, but the blows came faster, while Gen demanded over and over, "Submit! Submit!"
Magically, the door opened. Harry rolled backward over a pile of shoes and sandals and found himself on a reed mat looking up at a gaunt man in a black suit and French beret and a circle of women in short satin skirts and cardboard crowns. Cigarettes dangled from expressions of surprise. The air was thick with smoke, talcum, the fumes of mosquito coils and the heavily perfumed sweat of chorus girls.
The man carried an ivory cigarette holder in fingers painted red, blue and black. He tipped his chair to count Gen, Hajime, Tetsu and the Kaga twins gathered at the top of the stairs. "Hey, what are you trying to do, kill him? And five against one? What kind of fair fight is that?"
"We were just playing," Gen said.
"The poor boy is covered with blood." One of the women knelt to lift Harry's head and wiped his face with a wet cloth. He noticed that she had painted her eyebrows as perfect half-moons.
"He's not even Japanese," Hajime said over Gen's shoulder.
The woman reacted with such shock that Harry was afraid she would drop him like a spider. "Look at that, he's right."
"It's the missionary boy," another woman said. "He's always running through the street with this gang."
A man in a straw boater heaved into view. "Well" -- he laughed -- "it looks like the gang has turned on him."
"We were only playing," Harry said.
"He defends them?" the man in the beret said. "That's loyalty for you."
"It speaks Japanese?" Someone pressed forward to observe Harry more carefully.
"It speaks a little," Gen said.
The woman with the cloth said, "Well, your victim isn't going anyplace until he stops bleeding."
Harry's head stung, but he didn't find it unbearable to be in the gentle hands of a chorus girl with half-moon eyes, bare white shoulders and a paper crown, or to have his shoes removed by another chorus girl as if he were a soldier honorably wounded and carried from a field of battle. He took in the narrow room of vanity mirrors, screens, costumes glittering on racks, the photographs of movie stars pinned to the walls. The floor mats were covered with peanut shells and orange rinds, paper fortunes and cigarette butts.
"Achilles stays here." The man in the beret smiled as if he had read Harry's mind. "The rest of you can scram. This is a theater. Can't you see you're in a women's changing room? This is a private area."
"You're here," Gen said.
"That's different," the man with the boater said. "He's an artist, and I'm a manager. Go ahead, get out of here."
"We'll be waiting outside," Hajime threatened. From farther down the stairs, the twins rattled their poles with menace.
Harry looked up at the woman with the cloth. "What is your name?"
"Oharu, can my friend stay, too?" Harry pointed to Gen.
"That's what you call a friend?" Oharu asked.
"See, that's Japanese spirit, what we call Yamato spirit," the artist said. "Loyal to the bitter, irrational end."
"But he's not Japanese," the manager said.
"Japanese is as Japanese does." The artist laughed through yellowed teeth.
"Can he stay?" Harry asked.
Oharu shrugged. "Okay. Your friend can wait to take you home. But only him, no one else."
"Forget him," Hajime said into Gen's ear. "We'll get him later."
Gen wavered on the threshold. He pulled the goggles from his eyes as if seeing for the first time the women amid their cushions and mirrors, the packs of gold-tipped Westminster cigarettes, tissues and powder puffs, the sardonic men angled in their chairs under a blue cloud of cigarette smoke and mosquito coils stirred languidly by an overhead fan. Gen looked back at the stairway of boys, then handed his bamboo pole to Hajime, slipped off his clogs to step inside and closed the door behind him.
"How is it you speak Japanese?" the artist asked Harry.
"I go to school."
"And bow every day to the emperor's portrait?"
"Extraordinary. Where are your parents?"
"They're missionaries, they're traveling."
"Saving Japanese souls?"
"I guess so."
"Remarkable. Well, fair is fair. We will try to do something for your soul while you are here."
Harry's position as the center of attention was short-lived. A music hall might offer thirty comic skits and musical numbers and as many dancers and singers. Performers shuttled in and out, admitting a brief gasp of orchestra music before the door to the stage slammed shut again. Costume changes from, say, Little Bo Peep to a sailor suit were done on the run, Bo Peep's hoop skirts tossed in all directions for the wardrobe mistress to retrieve. Three or four women shared a single mirror. While Oharu removed Harry's sweaters to wipe blood from his chest, he watched a dancer hardly older than himself slip behind a screen to strip and pull on a ballerina's tutu. In the mirror he could see all of her.
Harry's experience with women was mixed, because his mother was on the road so often as partner to his father's ministry. Since Harry had been a sickly child, he had stayed in Tokyo with his nurse, who knew no better than to treat him like a Japanese. So he had grown up in a world of indulgent warmth and mixed baths, a Japanese boy who pretended to be an American son when his parents visited. But still a boy who had only speculated about the painted faces that stared from the windows of the brothels a few blocks from his home. There was something ancient and still and hooded about the whores in their kimonos. Now he was surrounded by an entirely different kind of woman, casually undressed and full of modern life, and in the space of a few minutes he had fallen in love first with Oharu and her half-moon brows and powdered shoulders, and then with the ballerina. If pain was the price of a sight like this, he could bear it. Sitting up, with the blood wiped off, he was small and skinny with a collection of welts and scratches, but his features were almost as uniform and his eyes nearly as dark as a Japanese boy's.
The artist offered Gen and Harry cigarettes.
"You shouldn't do that," Oharu said. "They don't smoke."
"Don't be silly, these are Tokyo boys, not farm boys from your rice paddy. Besides, cigarettes cut the pain."
"All the same, when the gaijin feels better, they have to go. I have work to do," the manager announced, although Harry hadn't seen him budge. "Anyway, it's too crowded in here. Hot, too."
"Damn." The artist felt his jacket pockets. "Now I'm out of fags."
Harry thought for a second. "What kind of cigarettes? We can get them for you. If you're thirsty, we can get beer, too."
"You'll just take the money and run," the manager said.
"I'll stay. Gen can go."
Gen had been dignified and watchful. He gave Harry a narrow look that asked when he had started giving orders.
"Next time," Harry said, "I'll go and Gen can stay."
It was a matter of adapting to the situation, and Harry's point of view had altered in the last ten minutes. A new reality had revealed itself, with more possibilities in this second-floor music-hall changing room than he'd ever imagined. Much better than playing samurai.
"It would be nice for the girls if we had someone willing to run for drinks and cigarettes," Oharu said. "Instead of men who just sit around and make comments about our legs."
The manager was unconvinced. He picked his collar from the sweat on his neck and gave Harry a closer scrutiny. "Your father really is a missionary?"
"Well, missionaries don't smoke or drink. So how would you even know where to go?"
Harry could have told the manager about his uncle Orin, a missionary who had come from Louisville to Tokyo's pleasure quarter and fallen from grace like a high diver hitting the water. Instead, Harry lit his cigarette and released an O of smoke. It rose and unraveled in the fan.
"For free?" the manager asked.
"Both of you?"
Harry looked over to Gen, who still held back, sensitive about the prerogatives of leadership. The door to the stage flew open for a change of acts, singers dressed in graduation gowns rushing out as ballet dancers poured in. The ballerina Harry had seen before didn't even bother with the privacy of a screen to strip to her skin, towel herself off and pull on a majorette costume with a rising sun on the front. To Harry, her change of costumes suggested a wide range of talents and many facets of personality. Gen had been watching, too.
"Yes," said Gen. "I'm with him."
"You should be. Look at him, a minute ago he was about to lose his head, and now he's in Oharu's lap. That is a lucky boy."
Was it only luck, Harry wondered? The way the fight had unfolded, the stumbling upstairs into the theater's roost, encountering Oharu and the artist, the transition of him and Gen from would-be samurai to men of the world all had a dreamlike quality, as if he had stepped through a looking glass to see a subtly altered, more defined image from the other side.
Otherwise, nothing changed. The following day he and Gen were at school again. They marched onto the baseball field in the afternoon and had the usual bayonet drill with Sergeant Sato. Harry put on his padded vest and wicker helmet so that, one after the other, Jiro and Taro, Tetsu and Hajime could take turns pummeling the gaijin. Gen beat Harry into the ground more viciously than ever.
At the end of the drill, the sergeant asked what their ambition in life was and, to a boy, they shouted. "To die for the emperor!"
No one shouted more fervently than Harry.
Copyright © 2002 by Titanic Productions
Amid the imperialist fervor of late 1941 Tokyo, Harry Niles is a man with a mission -- self-preservation. But Niles was raised by missionary parents and educated in the shadows of Tokyo's underworld -- making his loyalties as dubious as his business dealings.
Now, on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Niles must decide where his true allegiances lie, as he tries to juggle his Japanese mistress and an adulterous affair with the wife of a British diplomat; avoid a modern-day samurai who is honor-bound to kill him; and survive the machinations of the Japanese high command, whose plans for conquest may just dictate his survival.
Set in a maelstrom of personal temptations and mortal enemies, with a remarkable anti-hero caught in a land he can never call his own, DECEMBER 6 is a triumph of imagination, history, and riveting storytelling.
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