Saturday, June 04, 2005

"wildfire" by Shohei Ooka--3. fire in the field

(This is my translation of "Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka, a survivor of the WWII battles in Philippines. For more information, read this post. The first and second chapters are in the archives.)

3. Fire in the field

I had started walking without knowing it. Walking, I was ruminating the strange notion that had just caught me. I was convinced of its absurdity, but there was something in me that clung to it as a sort of secret pleasure.

The path traced the natural line of a foot of a hill in the woods. The green surface of the hill glittered among the trees. At the edge of the woods, the grass that formed a dreamy curve of the hill descended to the side of the path. On the flat ridgeline, I saw a solitary dwarf tree like a human being.

The woods ended and I was in a field of dry gravel and sand with sparse growth of grass. It was a river bed. Here and there, at elevated areas scattered around like islands, silver ears of pampas grasses shined in the late afternoon light. The river lied beyond, forming a single steel line, and hurriedly slid away, slicing the scenery. Across the river, hills about the height of the Yoko mountains in Tama region also displayed the similar pale green of grasses, and went upstream retreating to the right, to the left. And from below the final precipitous drop of the hills, a single stream of black smoke ascended.

The smoke, in this season on the Philippines Islands, should be one from the corn husks being burned after the harvest. Since the landing, it had always decorated our horizon, indicating the existence of the invisible Filipinos surrounding us.

All the guards had to pay attention to the condition of the smoke rising in the horizon. It could be a primitive guerilla signal. It was the difficult task assigned to the guards to determine whether it was indeed a smoke rising from the necessity to burn unwanted materials or a smoke to communicate with a distant accomplice.

The smoke across the river that I saw was broad and abundant, making me imagine the large amount of what was being burnt below it. At its black bottom, I recognized occasional invasions of the tip of orange flame.

But given the guard habit I had acquired, the smoke was enough to make me hesitate to expose myself in the open river bed. Whether or not it was a mere wild fire, it was obvious that there were Filipinos with the burning material under the smoke. And as a matter of fact, Filipinos were all enemies for us.

Now I regretted that I chose the unfamiliar route. Having started for the death already, however, I didn't want to go back. I decided to take a circuitous route in the pathless woods with hills along its rim on the right, to reach the point ahead where the path in the river bed went into another woods.

I cut my way through hanging branches and vines that clung to my legs. Stepping on damp undergrowth, the combat boots were slippery. Lest I lose sense of direction, I maintained the distance between the ferns illuminated emerald by the bright reflection of the river bed and the edge of the woods. There was a path as well. Following it into the depth of the woods, I found a hut and there was a man. A Filipino stood there, with his eyes wide open.

I stopped, had my rifle at the ready, and glanced around quickly.

"Good day, master," he said in a flattering voice. About thirty, a pale-faced Filipino. From the faded blue half pants showed his skinny, dirty legs. His sheer existence here, where all the residents had supposedly fled, was already suspicious.

"Hello," I automatically replied in faltering Visayan, still examining the surrounding. It was quiet. The hut was elevated only by a foot, and the front and the rear was open, allowing the view of the back. Pungent odor floated in the air.

"You are welcom." Looking at the rifle in my hand, the Filipino smiled an obsequious smile. What jumped out of my mouth at the time was something I had never thought of. It was the following.

"Are there any corn?"

The man's face clouded, but he went round to the back of the hut, as if to lead me, still repeating his "you are welcome." There, in a hole dug in the ground, a large iron pot was on the fire. In it, thick yellow liquid was bubbling. Judging from yellow yams scattered on the soil nearby, he must be simmering those yams. The odor rose from the liquid.

In a separate, smaller pot, kernels of corn were being boiled. He scooped it onto a filthy enameled plate and offered it to me with large grains of black salt. Then I realized that I didn't have appetite at all.

"Is this your house?"

"No, my house is across the river," he said, and pointed to the river through the trees. It is unclear what he boils the stinking mountain yams for, but he seemed to come here primarily for this task. The yams must be found around here. I asked him what the use of the yams was, but his answer in Visayan was beyond my comprehension.

With the plate in front of me, I absentmindedly sat on the floor. The man watched my face intently, with an unchanging smile as if plastered to his face.

"You don't eat it?"

I shook my head. As I poured the corn into the haversack on my waist, I hated myself for demanding food when I didn't have any appetite.

By then, I had loosened my guard against the man. Though in general we didn't have the experience of observation nor the patience for it to distinguish the characters of Filipinos, it seemed that the man's face, which continuously intended to welcome my gaze and smile, expressed nothing but a simple impulse of the people to earn favor of their oppressors. Furthermore, this would be one of the few human beings that I would encounter at the end of my life.

"Do you want some yams?" He asked, as if it suddenly occurred to him.

"These aren't edible, are they?"

"No, I have others. Wait for me," he stood up and walked into the woods. I vacantly watched him go. He walked quickly away, without looking back even once, descended to a basin to the side, then disappeared.

I looked afresh around the ruinous inside of the hut. Dirty floor boards had came off here and there, bamboo columns were askew. On an exposed wall board crawled a gecko. The empty interior of the hut showed the slovenly life of the Filipino farmers who didn't care to ornate their lives more than necessary.

"I might be able to live on among these men," I thought.

The man was yet to come back. I grew anxious. His swift movement when he stood up came back to my mind. I went into the woods around where he disappeared. Only the trees stood silently. Fury rose inside of me at the thought of his flight. I hurried to the edge of the woods and no doubt I could see his back running toward the distant river, almost falling over.

When he looked back to recognize my figure, he waved his fists above his head as a gesture of threat and resumed running. The distance was far more than the reach of the bullets, and even if he had been within the bullets' reach, there would have been no way they would hit him. Before long his figure was obliterated by shining pampas grasses.

A wry smile came to me. Since I saw the eyes of impotent hatred of Filipinos in Manila, I should have known very well how futile it was to look for friendship from them. I went back to the hut, kicked over the pot of the simmered mountain yams, and left the spot. With the man fled, it was dangerous to stay there.

In an open river bed, I exposed myself boldly. Given his flight to the other side of the river, this position was safe for now. It meant that there was nobody he could go for help nearby. At the latest, I could leave here by the time he came back with his gang across the river.

I walked on the gravel hastily to cross the river bed and went back on the previous path at the beginning of the woods ahead. The trees in the woods were small and their trunks thin. Anthills piled up high beside the path from which ants flooded out like a fountain. I proceeded with caution, staying on the watch for the front. Even though I was certain of the security from my deduction, the fleeing man was, for my fear, a possibility of the existence of Filipinos on this path. Caution robbed me of meditation.

The woods came to an end. Across the river the fire was still visible in the field. There were two without my knowledge. Further, on the top of a lone hill shaped like a squatting man facing the other direction, another line of smoke was rising.

The fire at the foot of the hill rose thick and straight, but the one on the hill bent after reaching a certain height, indicating the wind that only blows high in the sky, and its tip became faint like a bloom. In contrast to the smoke at the bottom, which rose quickly with momentum as if to fight the weight of the air, the one on the hill rose high, thin, and proud, then swayed, trailed, and floated as if playing with the wind in the sky. This coexistence of two different shapes of smoke in one scenery, contrary to the meteorological rules, gave me a strange sensation.

The smoke on the hill was probably from a fire burning pasture, but it was fairly similar to what we call a beacon. But what signal did it send?

I grew impatient. The hill on the right went further away. Before I knew it, its graceful side like a back of a woman had changed to an unexpected, steep, and narrow facade, which threw two smaller ridges to the right and left from the triangular top, as if to stand firm with both feet. A basalt rock in the shape of an armchair was suspended in a small hollow between the two ridges. If I went round the ridge ahead, it might lead to the valley where the hospital was. I hastened my steps.

I was among the woods again. In the woods, the path branched into two. The left seemed to go upstream along the river, the right seemed to go along the hill. Shortly after I chose the right, the woods came to an end in a vast grass field. And there, I saw another fire.

The woods continued and diverged to the left along the river. In the front, beyond the dune-like undulations of the grass field, another hill of exposed rocks blocked the way like a folding screen. And halfway between me and the hill, the grass was burning about ten yards in width. There was no one.

I kept standing for a long time, looking at the smoke.

It was impossible that a fire occurred wherever I went, just because I went there. It was obvious if I compared my position as a mere soldier and the sociality of the task of building a fire. I was seeing them in sequence only because of the fortuity of the course I chose as a solitary walker.

My anxiety also belonged to the strange confusion of the senses ever since I had left the mainland. The only actual basis of the anxiety was the speculation that there were people where there was a fire, but this general causal relationship was not enough to justify the anxiety that I felt at the time. In actuality there was nobody at the fire in the grass field. The source of the anxiety lied in the sequence of the incidents that had occurred to me as an individual. It lied in the XXXnumberXXX of the fire I had seen.

These personal sensations bothered me probably because I was absorbed in myself too much.

Seeking a releaser from the magic, I looked in the horizon for the village where the hospital should be located. For, judging from the size of the grass field, it could be assumed that the field was more ore less a part of the valley of my destination. And I was able to find the few familiar houses that congregated as if to snuggle up to each other, at the foot of a rocky mountain to the far right.

There, at all events, there are my countrymen. At this time I didn't have no other idea than that.

The path cut through the fire still ablaze, but I couldn't go beyond it. Off the path, I proceeded straight to the village, shoving various gramineous grasses that reached up to my shoulder.

But my eyes didn't wander off the smoke. The sun was sinking low and it had started to be windy. The smoke crept on the ground to envelope the grasses, at times flying toward the woods along the river, cut off in the sky like a cotton ball.

There was not a shadow of human being in the grassy field as far as eye could see. Who set this fire, it was a question that I still couldn't solve from the facts in front of my eyes.


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