Saturday, May 14, 2005

Wildfire by Shohei Ooka--2. Path

This is my translation of the second chapter of "Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka (大岡昇平 『野火』). Why I started this project and what the book is like overall, check out this post.

2. Path

Large acacia trees towered over the village, covering with their shadows the roots that invaded and blocked the streets. The doors, to the houses where the residents evacuated, were closed, and the streets were vacant. Volcanic gravels glared in grayish brown, straying out the village to mingle with the green wilds, bursting with sunshine.

Along with the disemboweling desperation, I felt a negative happiness of a sort filled my body. Granted it was an ephemeral freedom of not having a place to go, but I could use the last few days of my life as I would please, not at the will of the officers.

The destination, had been in my mind. As I told the guardsmen, I would go to the hospital. Not to repeat the futile entreaty. But to see the people who "squatted" there. I didn't know what to do once I saw them, but I wanted to see the people again, who, just like me, had no place to go.

A field opened itself. Straight ahead it was limited by woods in about a kilometer, but to the right, behind a tree-less expanse of a marsh field into the distance, the volcanic mountains of the central mountain range that constituted the spine of the island heaped on top of each other, with a ridge of a frontal mountain stretching toward the back of the woods ahead. Where its undulation like a back of a lying woman gradually lowered toward the left, next to a nose-like protrusion, a rapid stream about eighteen meters in width appeared. The hills again rose across the stream, and sank along it, then curved to the left in the scenery. The sea should be behind it.

The hospital was about six kilometers beyond the hills ahead.

The afternoon sun was ablaze. The sunlit sky, so radiant that one would suspect a storm conceived in it, was filled with the roar of enemy aircrafts incessantly flying in one section. Among their monotonous buzz of honeybees, sounds of sporadic mortars exploding somewhere in the nearby mountains were occasionally mixed. To expose myself in the open field put me in the danger of being targeted by an enemy aircraft, but at this point I had no reason to fear.

I placed a hand towel under the helmet to prevent the sweat from running, slung the rifle to my shoulder with the leather strap, and continued on with spirit. I still seemed to have fever, but I was used to this fever since my younger age. Just as it once was an obstacle I had to handle with craft in order to fulfill the desire of the youth, now it was nothing more than a condition naturally to be ignored in order to live the time of my life at my disposal. Disease is nothing when there is no reason to hope for its cure.

I walked on, spitting the phlegm on roadside grasses as it welled up from the throat. I imagined with pleasure the Japanese tuberculosis germs contained in the phlegm die out one by one, scorched by the tropical sun.

At the edge of the woods the path diverged into two. Ahead was a path crossing over the hills straight to the hospital, to the left was one that went around the protruding nose in the woods, then went into the same valley. The path over the hills was undisputedly shorter, but I was already fed up with the route after the two round trips since yesterday. From an aimless whim, I decided to take the unfamiliar woodland path.

It was dark in the woods, the path narrow. Among the towering jungle of the tall trees similar to oak and maple, low shrubs of unknown names spread without leaving a space, stretching the vines and tendrils around. Tropical leaves, which kept falling irrespective of the season, were decomposing on the path, transmitting soft feel to the sole of my shoes. In silence, new fallen leaves rustled at my feet, as if in Musashino woods back home. I walked on, my head drooping.

A strange notion passed my mind: this path is a path I take for the first time in my life, and nevertheless I will never take this path again. I stopped, looked around.

Nothing was unusual. There, broad-leaved trees similar in many aspects to the ones in my homeland (with straight trunks, spreading branches, and hanging leaves), stood in silence, only that I did not know the names. Far before I came across here, they must have been standing thus, regardless of whether I came or not, and they will stay thus for good.

Nothing was more natural than this. And that I, who would die before long, would not pass in this hidden woods on the Philippine Island again, was also natural. What was strange was that I conceived this known fate and the fact that I pass through here for the first time as a contradictory relation of a sort.

Yet, since I left the mainland, I had been used to these irrational conception and feelings. For example, when the transport ship advanced the southern sea of June, as I gazed at the ocean, lost in thought, I suddenly found myself in a trim scenery as if in a dream.

The absolute navy ocean stretched, with the horizon surrounding it with a perfect circle, as if to raise the volume of the water. Not far away from the surface, rice-cake-like clouds were afloat with their bottoms lined up at a definite height, probably keeping a regular distance from each other. And as the ship proceeded at a fixed speed, they moved like a fan being turned around a certain viewpoint. Accompanied by the regular sound of the waves that passed by the side and the monotonous sound of diesel engine, this very regular scene seemed then to me utterly strange.

Given that, under an accidentally stable air pressure, the sun pours heat evenly on the sea surface, incessantly creating the same amount of vapor, it is no mystery that there emerged the clouds of the exact same shape at a regular position. And since I watched them from a ship which was propelled by a machinery at a regular speed, it was natural that the scenery transformed itself in a fixed manner. Although I immediately reflected thus, my excitement was slow to leave. There was a nuance of pleasant pain of some sort.

If I had been a tourist at the time, I would have fancied telling, upon coming home, my miserable friends chained to the land of Japan about this wonder of the ocean. My excitement and pain were, perhaps, based on the fact that I, having infected with the premonition of a defeat and death, could not expect to relate the strange experience to others.

It was also probably because I felt a foreboding of death at the time, that it felt strange not to walk the narrow path in the woods on Philippine Islands ever again. Such notion never strikes us whatever remote area we might wander in Japan. It might be because the possibility of coming back when we please is assumed unconsciously. Then, our so-called sense of vitality might lie in the expectation of being able to infinitely repeat what we currently do.

The tropical scenery of the Philippine Islands pleasantly rocked my senses. Softness of the lawn outside of the city of Manila, striking treetops of flame trees washed by a sudden shower, out-of-the-paint-tube sunrise and sunset, volcanoes with purple shade, coral reef surrounded by white surf, thickets swallowing the shadows at the water's edge, everything took my mind to the delight, near ecstasy. The ever-growing delight in the nature seemed to be the sure sign of my approaching death.

I thanked the coincidence that allowed me such sight of the abundance of life before I die. My life so far had been far from satisfactory, but I actually might have been blessed with good luck; the thought flashed. The word "destiny" that visited me at that time, if I didn't resist, could easily be exchanged with "God."

Apparently, such notion and confusion of senses were the result of the broken balance of my consciousness and the outside world, due to my complete lack of will to fight despite having been transported overseas in order to fight. Infantry is a profession that requires one to see nature only from the standpoint of necessity. For him, slight unevenness of the ground means a refuge to protect himself from bullets, and a beautiful green plain represents merely a dangerous distance to be crossed quickly. All sorts of natural aspects that appears to his eyes, who is dragged from one place to the other as operational plans demand, are inherently meaningless for him. This meaninglessness is his support for existence and his source of courage.

When, from cowardice or from reflection, the meaningless unity is broken, what is exposed in the crevice would be something even more meaningless for a living human being, which is to say the premonition of death.


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