2048 Words

A Matter of Honor

M. Stanley Bubien

Yoshiro Mastumotu sat in his wheelchair, his face a staunch, unyielding stone---the same mask that he'd worn so many times over the past fifty years. The funeral progressed before him, yet neither the flag-covered coffin, nor the mourners, veiled in black, hands clutching handkerchiefs, moved Yoshiro to alter his expression.

"These Americans," he thought, "they are a people without honor." And with those words, he confirmed yet again that he, Yoshiro Mastumotu, belonged amongst them.

A young man stepped past the row of soldiers wearing dress-black uniforms, standing at attention in perfect stillness. The wind whisked across his suit as he approached the podium with head bowed and hands clasped behind his back. He paused before the microphone, taking a breath, and, finally facing the crowd, he said, "Thank you all for coming. I am saddened by the passing of my father, but at the same time, I am proud---proud of who he was, and proud of what he accomplished. I thank you for coming to pay him homage, as he was the last living veteran of both World War One and World War Two---a war, by all rights, he should not have survived." And, with those words, the young man turned toward Yoshiro.

"Yes," Yoshiro thought, pressing his lips together to keep his composure. "Yes. And if I had any honor in my bones, he would have died fifty years ago." And the memory of that day returned to him, unbidden, yet unhindered, at that very moment.

The island name had faded long ago, but not the image of the traditional uniform donned, the traditional rifle borne, by him, the traditional Japanese soldier. It was like a flash of lightning, the attack that hit his compound The mortars exploded around the encampment, destroying most of the makeshift buildings, killing every single Japanese soldier within.

Yoshiro, however, survived. For, just before the attack, he wandered into the jungle to relieve himself. The shock-waves from the mortar fire knocked him to the ground and left him unconscious.

It was the deep thump of a land mine, away in the night-shrouded jungle, that finally shook Yoshiro to consciousness. His mind reeled briefly, but he focused himself. His squad had certainly been attacked, an attack which probably left them either all killed or captured, for the only sounds that reached him now were those of the jungle night---a silent void, empty of the rifle cracks or mortar booming that battle inevitably brought.

Yoshiro also knew a land mine had exploded nearby. Likely, it was one of the attackers. But there remained the possibility that one of his fellow Japanese, fleeing the onslaught, stumbled blindly into the mine field.

Silently, as the well-trained soldier he was, he crawled toward the mine field, and there, at its edge, he spotted the body. The darkness shrouded it, though, and Yoshiro was unable to discern from which army the man hailed. Cautiously, Yoshiro approached. He was nearly atop the soldier before he could make out the uniform.

An American. And even through the dark, Yoshiro saw the thick fluid dripping from the man's shattered leg, and, just a meter away, a shredded boot lay, still tied to the foot that had once been a part of that leg.

The American groaned softly. Yoshiro stiffened in surprise, for he had thought the man dead. The night seemed to darken further about him and he felt his nostrils flare. He touched his still-holstered pistol. An oath spun in his head, and on his stomach, Yoshiro pushed himself toward the American. He watched the man's face as he palmed the grey metal, rolling it in his hand, wet and warm from the tropical night. Slowly, he brought the firearm forward.

He placed the barrel lightly against the man's temple. His hand trembled. He pressed his lips tightly together, trying to force the trembling away. He took deep breaths, flaring his nostrils further, and focused on the oath---his soldier's oath---to fight the enemies of his people. And these Americans were the enemies of the Japanese Empire. Yoshiro had sworn---fight them to the death---and he was honor-bound to do so.

"Yes!" He nodded to himself. "Honor binds me. Fight to the death!" Maybe his comrades were all lost, but on this night, by his oath, at least one American would die!

Yoshiro gritted his teeth and crushed the barrel harder against the American's fleshy temple, and fingering the trigger, he squeezed slowly, slowly, slowly. But the man's quiet moaning found him and touched him. Yoshiro hesitated, head cocked sidelong. That sound. It was so familiar, like... like... utterances---yes, he remembered now. His Japanese brothers, falling at his side in battle, suffering and yet trying to mask their distress so no one could see or hear. But Yoshiro was hunched down low amongst them, near enough to see, to look into their white shining orbs betraying the pain within. Yoshiro had heard too. Yes. Their utterances...

Again, Yoshiro lay beside the American, exhaling a jet from his nostrils, swirling the dirt silently around his lips. "Recall!" he told himself, shaking the vision of his fallen brethren away, "Honor! To the death." His hand continued to tremble, but he squeezed.

The American rolled onto his back, and Yoshiro reflexively whipped the pistol out of the way. Slowly, the American's eyes came open, and his voice whispered something. As Yoshiro stared back, the American whispered again---a word, something Yoshiro could not understand, for he knew very little of the American language.

A drop of sweat rolled off Yoshiro's face and spattered the American on the forehead. The American blinked, and Yoshiro suddenly realized what he had asked. Water. The American wanted water.

Yoshiro glanced behind him, then side to side, then back at the broken man. Their gazes met. An oath told Yoshiro to quickly reapply the barrel, and, trembling or not, pull the trigger, firing the gun for one and for all. But Yoshiro's vision spoke louder, seeing the reflection of his Japanese brothers in the American's pallid eyes.

Yoshiro's canteen was only half-full, but he used his palm to splatter the liquid into the American's mouth. After three palm-fulls, Yoshiro set aside his canteen and tore a strip from his tunic. He fastened it to the wounded leg, tying it off at a pressure point, and used another length to cover the shattered stump. When he finished, he splashed more water into the American's mouth.

And, in that instant, Yoshiro's life collapsed around him.

Lights flooded his vicinity, flash-blinding him briefly, and a voice barked at him from above. He froze, hearing the rifle bolts clack back and forth while the voice commanded him again---this time in Japanese---to halt.

A hand reached past him and wrenched the canteen from his grasp. Another order, to stand, and Yoshiro complied. What remained of his tunic dangled in strips at his waist as he raised his arms above his head.

He was surrounded by American soldiers.

The commander signaled two men to check their wounded compatriot. Their voices became frantic after a few moments, and Yoshiro noticed them pointing to his tunic, and to the strips tied to the man's leg. Yoshiro's eyes fell. They knew. They knew! Oh! If only he had killed the man. Almost! Almost! But what stopped him? Yoshiro could not even remember. The reason mattered not. For his oath had been stripped from him like his holstered pistol, and his honor expired slowly like his Japanese brothers.

No! Yoshiro could never bear that!

With one stiff breath, he fell to his knees and pushed his forehead against the commander's rifle barrel. "Shoot!" Yoshiro cried in Japanese. His brow furled against the warm metal, waiting for the burning blast.

The commander remained still, gazing without comprehension.

Could these American's be so without honor? Yoshiro pushed himself harder against the barrel, crying once more, "Shoot!"

Again, it elicited no response.

"Shoot! Shoot!" he repeated his voice shrill with emotion.

The commander allowed this to continue only briefly; instead of firing, he nodded to his men, and Yoshiro felt himself being pulled down and bound at the hands and feet. He did not struggle, for it would have been useless.

Memory often blurs time. Moments may pass like ages, weeks or months may become lost, unheeded. For Yoshiro, the period between his capture and the end of the war felt like the latter. In the prison camp, his Japanese brothers first asked him if the stories were true, that he'd saved the life of his enemy---for these Americans, so without honor, spoke freely of the one who was found giving water to their own wounded. Yoshiro never answered in words, but his brothers knew the truth and remained far away afterwards.

Then Yoshiro found himself stepping upon the soil of his homeland. He searched the faces of his people. There he found the pain of defeat, the sorrow of great loss, but also the pride of those who fought valiantly and were bested. In their presence, Yoshiro's cheeks tingled with an uncomfortable itch, for he could not wear the same face---he had fought too, yes, but his valiance had failed him.

That was why he decided to go to the land of the Americans and join the people who had no honor---they would never recognize a man without a face. And there, for fifty odd years, he wore not a face, but cheeks like the stone of his homeland, unbreakable and unfathomable upon their ancient perches. He'd built a life---married, then married again well after his first wife left screaming that she could only be with a man who was open like a book. He worked diligently, raising enough to retire, though that came earlier than expected with the onset of Parkinson's disease.

Finally, the invitation arrived---asking him to attend the funeral of Joseph Dorcas Allen---a man whose name he did not recognize---until the accompanying letter explained that he, Yoshiro Mastumotu, had saved Mr. Allen's life in a mine field during the war.

An invitation to the funeral of the man he should have killed! "Ah," Yoshiro spoke to his wife while she prepared their evening meal, "they want me to march before them, parading my dishonor after these fifty years."

She was a silent one, this wife of his, and she simply shook her head as she removed the cap from a mushroom. Silently also, Yoshiro watched the caps bounce against the boiled rice, but inside he decided to attend the funeral. Yes, they would see, they would see the staunchness, and it would leave them frustrated, just as it had his first wife.

Even now, amidst these mourners, surrounded by soldiers and statesmen, listening to the young man at the podium, Yoshiro remained statuesque.

"I loved my father, but it is not him who I've come to speak of," the young man continued from the podium. "At my father's request---a request I gladly accepted---I wanted to spend a moment and thank one man. One very brave man. He fought along side my father in the war. And he saved my father's life. But this man," he said in a sudden raised voice as he turned his head to take in the whole of the procession. "This man was my father's enemy. A Japanese soldier, who, for reasons unknown, gave him water and stopped his bleeding."

The young man looked directly at Yoshiro---who stiffened further and frowned---and his voice became calmer. "I want to personally thank you, Mr. Mastumotu, because in saving my father's life, you made my life possible---and the life of my brother and sister."

Glancing rigidly about, Yoshiro was at a complete loss, for every single person was transfixed upon him. And the sound that reached him, at first an utterance, then a heartbeat, and finally a falling rain, made his face itch uncomfortably. For these Americans---these people without honor in whose midst Yoshiro Mastumotu sat---clapped their hands together for him between their own tears, where, beyond the rain, Yoshiro heard, quite unexpectedly, the reminiscence of an ancient stone shattered and broken.

Copyright ©1997 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.

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Story Bytes


September, 1997
Issue #17

2048 Words