A delirium of blossoms, he recalled. Here we are on the bank of the Huzo, walking in pink snow. They were Americans, in love with love, with pictures of Mount Fuji they’d seen in National Geographic. And there it was, appearing at sunrise on the train window. How about that, he’d said, waking her. You can’t see the bottom. It’s a vision, a floating island, a perfect cone, just like the photos— so symmetrical, so ideal, darling, like you. Here in Kyoto now, the river glided, bright as mica, tinged with glacial till. All the city, it seemed, had come to savor the soft explosions of cherry trees, just as they had, these newlyweds, arriving in a rickshaw, crowding with others onto boats poled by young men whose tanned arms glistened in April sun. Then, excursions to temples and gardens, where the azaleas had just begun to ignite among the zen stones. Such tranquility, he told her on a stroll. Such harmony with the natural world, don’t you think? You won’t find that back home. They even made love in a bamboo grove, he remembered, thinking at the time they were alone, with only the calls of the different birds high in the green light, then noticing as she rolled off him onto the moss, her skirt askew, they were being watched. An old woman in a conical hat smiled. They smiled, mortified, unable to answer the woman’s slight bow and greeting: Konnichiwa. So long ago it was, that afternoon in the city of pagodas and monuments, markets thronged and rich with smells they’d never smelled. Now, for Christ’s sake, they want to try out the new bomb—Fat Boy, or Fat Man, or something— on Kyoto, our Kyoto, where we climbed above the river to that temple. What was it called? She wept, even, when statues of the Buddha would appear as if by magic, like sudden awakenings, among the pines. He could imagine the shrines flattened, ancient timbers blown to kindling by the blast, the curved black roof tiles of ten-thousand buildings swirling in typhoons of white fire. Our city, for God’s sake. Our city. Even the ice-fed Huzo would boil, its boats burning by the collapsed bridge they’d walked across a dozen times, and the young men who poled the boats— they’d be burned to death in seconds. So young the couple had been, so charmed by the politeness of the bowing Japanese, so delighted when the young lovers would pull out their phrase book and attempt a few words to a shopkeeper or a woman planting rice shoots along a road, and be understood. He would demand that the committee remove Kyoto from the list of targets. Surely there were other cities more suitable from a military standpoint, more appropriate strategically. What about Kokura’s munitions plants? What about Yokohama or Hiroshima? No matter what General X said or what General Y argued would be the Emperor’s next move, no matter what logic or tactical line of thinking they’d spread on their table of maps, damage projections, casualty estimates, he’d hold the line. He would not stand by to see Kyoto—their Kyoto— reduced to miles of radioactive ash. The bomb, he vowed, would be dropped, just not on the city he loved, his Kyoto. His decision would be final. Was he or was he not Secretary of War? He’d go to Truman, if necessary, get the full backing of the President. Not one Shinto shrine, god damn it. Not one Zen pavilion. Not one pond of koi, not one boy—I see him plain as day— little canvas knapsack on his back, riding his rickety bike to school, pausing on the bridge to cover his ears against the howl of air raid sirens. I see him turn for home at the instant the sun comes down to earth, flowering like God knows what—a rose, a death rose of heat and fire. No, no and no. Not in Kyoto. Not in our Kyoto. They’ll have to add another city to the list.
Author’s Note: Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950,) US Secretary of War, 1940-1945, was de facto head of the Manhattan Project. This poem is loosely based on an event from Stimson’s life.
Edward Harkness is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Saying the Necessary, 2000, and Beautiful Passing Lives, 2010, both from Pleasure Boat Studio. His poems can be found online in Atticus Review, Cascadia Review, Hinchas de Poesia, Rat’s Ass Journal, Split Lip Magazine and Terrain.org. His most recent chapbook, Ice Children, was published by Split Lip Press in 2014. He lives in Shoreline, Washington.
Hear Harkness read his poem, “Union Creek in Winter,” on Terrain.org, here.