By Cici Zhu

It’s a little after seven when I wake. I open one eye at first and for a split second am overcome with panic. I stayed outside to watch the sunset yesterday and when I returned home, blinking incessantly, Mama scolded me for damaging my eyes. My mind awakens and I realise I fell asleep with one side of my face pressed into the pillow, paralysing my eye into blindness.

“Oh,” I say to no one in particular. There’s a clattering sound and the pungent smell of ginger infiltrates my nostrils. I flip over to see Mama preparing breakfast. She looks tired as she scoops rice into three small bowls, before counting the correct number of chopsticks for us. The kitchen windows have been broken for a couple of months and I can see her thin shoulders visibly shaking from the cold breeze. I catch her pulling one foot out of her slipper to rub it against the other for warmth. I try to clear my throat discreetly, but she whips her head around, frowns, and then mutters some incoherent words in my direction.

I roll onto my back and stretch both arms out like a new-born baby. Mama used to say that Mitsue was the most perfect baby. The minute she lay down, she would yawn and stretch and sleep uninterrupted. Even now, she sleeps through the night and barely moves an inch between closing her eyes and opening them in the morning.

I can hear Mama grumbling at me to get dressed, but I take my time rolling around before finally emerging. Ever since Mitsue returned from school with the flu a few weeks ago, I haven’t been sleeping very well. Most nights I stay awake listening to the sounds of her sniffles, wondering if she needs the hot towel on her forehead replaced. I wipe my nose with the back of my hand and catch Mitsue’s glance towards me as she exits the bathroom. Her eyes light up as she waves with both hands and waddles towards me.

“Are you feeling better, Su?”

Mitsue nods earnestly and replies “yes, nee-chan,” as she snuggles into my chest. Her body is warm and petite. I stroke her hair as she holds on for a longer embrace.

Mama waves us over to eat, though she doesn’t forget to reprimand me for messing up Mitsue’s neatly pressed uniform. Mitsue smooths down the pleats of her skirt obediently, receiving a gentle caress on her cheek from Mama in return. I yawn with my mouth wide open and look for last night’s cardigan to put over my nightgown, before crawling over to join them. We each have a bowl of white rice with furikake and miso soup with dried mushrooms. In the centre of the table is an assortment of pickles, a thick egg omelette and grilled salt mackerel. Mama pours green tea into my cup and begins to warn me about the heat, but it takes me half a second too long to register what she has said. My fingertips pull away from the scorching cup and tea spills onto my lap. Suddenly I am overwhelmed by the dampness that burns into my exposed skin. I reflexively turn to observe Mama’s reaction, which is usually as stinging as the feeling that now sinks into my thighs. As expected, she shakes her head and sighs at the sight. Mitsue looks to be on the verge of tears and I can see that she is about to rise to her feet. I quickly wink at her playfully. She giggles in response and instead pushes a full spoon of rice into her mouth.

“Will you walk me to school today, nee-chan?” she says incoherently, spitting a grain of rice out in my direction. I am always rostered on for work on Mondays, but Mitsue is in luck as my shift schedule lines up with her school hours perfectly. Her primary school is only a five-minute walk from the house, but the route cuts through a few rundown streets. There’s no way that Mama or I would even think to let her walk by herself. In the beginning, Mitsue would whinge and complain that she was old enough to make the journey herself, however, after her classmate broke his arm and bruised his cheekbone from an accident just outside our house, she hasn’t said another word about it.

“Of course,” I reply, patting her on the back. Mitsue takes my words literally and throws her chopsticks down to go and find her shoes. “Wait, I didn’t mean right now…”

“Mitsue-ya!” Mama furrows her brow angrily and hisses the words. “Come back and finish your breakfast.”

Mitsue trudges back over, heaving herself down with effort and pouting as she picks her spoon back up. She hasn’t been eating much of Mama’s cooking recently, which has not done any favours for Mama’s temperament. Since the beginning of the school term, Mitsue’s class have received meals during their lunch breaks. In her first week, Mitsue came home wide-eyed and ecstatic as she recounted the story of the delicious, soft bread roll, sweet milk and hot, rich beef stew. She was so full that she barely touched the soup that Mama had spent all afternoon preparing. I remember Mama nodded along and listened to every word of Mitsue’s story and said nothing still as she packed away the remaining two-thirds of our dinner. Our mealtimes are the only part of the day that we’re all together and it took me a while to understand that Mama actually looked forward to it. She tries hard to reserve her emotions around us, but every mouthful that Mitsue leaves in her bowl causes her expressions to darken even further

Mama snaps her fingers in front of my face and berates me for drifting off while she’s talking. I apologise with a sly nod and finish my food before excusing myself to the bathroom. I fill a small bowl with water and gently rinse my face, stopping to pick at each imperfection. The hot water seems to have run out again, and since I’m the last to wake every morning, I have had to become used to the uncomfortable temperature. I look around for my shoes and a clean dress to wear while one hand is tangled in my hair, trying to form a braid. At work we must style our hair in a very intricate way, and it requires a certain degree of finesse that I simply do not have. Mitsue likes it but Mama despises the entire look and refuses to help me out of spite. I manage to locate one shoe and spot the other by the front door where Mitsue is already standing, her large backpack already hanging from her skinny shoulders. She has both hands tightly gripping the straps, but remains composed even though there is a slight glint of frustration in her eyes. She lets out a shrill cry, “I’m ready”, accompanied by the sound of her tapping foot and reaches out for my hand. Mitsue doesn’t like to hold Mama’s hands but will always choose mine. Mama used to spend hours taking care of her skin and would pride herself on her soft hands. She started working when I was around Mitsue’s age, and Mama told me that I also stopped holding her hand. She assumed it was due to the roughness of her skin from cleaning, but I never told her the real reason why. Our school closed soon after, and Mama told me it was temporary and that I should stay on top of my classwork. However, the years went by, and Mama spent less and less time with me, and eventually it was Mitsue’s turn to start school. I turn to look at Mitsue now and she beams back at me, gripping my hand extra tight, and I begin to wonder how we all got here.


Our local school in Asahikawa was large and grand. The grounds were vast and surrounded by greenery – it was the last remaining building in the area that was being regularly maintained. Mama often smiled every time we walked past. I remember we would count all of the different colours that we saw. She would carry me with one arm and hold my brother Akio’s hand in the other. We would ask her questions about the flower names, and she would tell us stories about the beautiful gardens that she had visited when she was younger. Mama promised to take us to see them as soon as it was all over. Mama used to laugh a lot and loved to dance even when there was no music. Her joy would turn heads. Her gentle and kind spirit was continuously praised by the older residents.

Akio was unlike any of the other boys his age. He loved to spend time with Mama, asking questions about every little thing they passed. He was already thirteen, but he would hold her hand proudly as they walked to and from school. He wore a neat black and white uniform with black rubber shoes that were half a size too big. Mama told him that he would grow into them and to stuff them with socks to prevent them from rubbing against his heel. When we arrived at the school, he would always make sure to wave goodbye to us before joining his classmates. There were about twenty other boys in his class and even when they converted the school into a factory, he was still excited to see them. They continued to talk about cartoons and books and would play all kinds of games during their breaks. Despite the growing disruptions to their routine, he would always come home laughing and with endless stories to share over dinner. I used to wait for him by the front door and run towards him as soon as he walked into our house.

We left Asahikawa after the war and moved to Tokyo where Mama had some relatives. They found us a home in their neighbourhood and we moved in shortly after. We could only bring a few bags with us when we moved, so Mama was forced to donate all the boys’ clothes to the locals. We left behind all traces of my brother and Papa in the remains of our house. Over time, she stopped styling her hair and wearing makeup and eventually, she would speak only to berate me. She no longer smiled as often and soon stopped altogether. It seemed like she had to force herself to make eye contact with me, and when she did, it was as if she was looking straight through me. It was like I no longer existed to her in the same way, and any forms of physical contact seemed like a chore. I eventually stopped asking to hold her hand. I would go to bed without a hug. After a while I forgot what her touch felt like.


Mitsue stomps her feet impatiently as my steps have slowed down in pace, and I quickly race ahead in front of her in jest. She wails for me to wait for her so I stick my tongue out and laugh in response. Mitsue can be quite sensitive and often gets upset by small things, so Mama and I make a conscious effort to keep our emotions in check around her. A couple of months ago, Mitsue walked into the kitchen as I was cutting some onions for dinner and started crying because she thought there were tears in my eyes.

“Do you have any new jokes for me, Su?” I ask. Mitsue purses her lips and ponders for a second, making little “hmm” sounds as she thinks. Her classmates have started swapping jokes in the schoolyard and even though I’ve heard most of them already, I make sure to laugh extra hard when she tells them.

“Oh, yeah,” she says excitedly. “Knock-knock?”

“Who is it?”

“No, you have to say ‘who’s there’!” Mitsue says as she blows a raspberry in my direction. I smirk and answer properly this time. She continues, her eyes gleaming, “Boo!”

“Boo who?”

“Don’t cry!” She erupts into a cackle of laughter and claps her hands happily. I watch the corners of her lips stretch so far up her chubby cheeks, that her smile is quite literally ear-to-ear. I try to plaster a similar expression on my face, but it does not come so easily to me. Luckily Mitsue doesn’t seem to notice my discomfort. I tell her that it’s the best joke I’ve ever heard, and judging by her smirk, she must’ve forgotten that I said the same thing to her last week. She clings onto my left side with both of her arms and I can’t resist wrapping myself around her for another sweet embrace.


I stay at the school entrance and wait until Mitsue has run all the way inside the front door before leaving. Mitsue likes to move and wave at the same time, looking back multiple times as if to check whether I am still there. Akio used to move in the same way. Mama would always yell for him to be careful and watch where he was going. His black hair would bounce up and down in the wind – he’d pull a silly facial expression to reassure us he was okay. Mitsue stops just before the door and grins before sticking her tongue out just like Akio used to. She looks just like him.

I walk down the block to the bus station and take a seat as I wait for the next one to arrive. It’s a twenty-minute ride to Shibuya where I’ve been employed as a retail sales assistant. When the war began, Mama had to find a job despite having been a housewife for years, and at her age, she only had one option to pursue. It took her a while to become accustomed to cleaning other people’s houses, but it meant that she was able to observe the Americans up close. Sometimes I think she purposely chose a profession where she could see them in their most organic states. She would judge them and their living conditions to perpetuate her own hatred. Mama was quite displeased when I told her I found employment at the Post Exchange, or PX as my colleagues call it, where my main responsibility was to help soldiers find gifts for their wives and girlfriends. As soon as I told her, she whispered under her breath that what we were doing was ‘slave work’.

When I was younger, I had never even seen a soldier before, or any one of importance. It was only from old stories about warriors and royal figures that I started to comprehend their existence. Mama used to tuck me in at night and read me fairy tales about beautiful princesses and handsome princes. My favourite was the story of Chūjō-hime, the daughter of an imperial minister and a princess, who was born after her parents pleaded to the Hase Kannon for a child. Mama would spin the story and say that Chūjō-hime grew up to marry a wealthy prince and lived happily ever after with both her parents, but I secretly read the tale myself after she went to sleep and learned of their much sadder fate. Kannon agreed to grant them a child but in exchange, one parent would have to give their own life, and in the story, Chūjō-hime loses her Mama when she is three years old. After Papa died, Mama put the book away. Instead, she would tell me of the fantasy where I’d find my own fairy-tale ending. She believed that I would grow up to find a man like the wealthy Prince in her version of the story, and that he would give all of us a much happier life. She would fall asleep while still holding me in her arms, praying that I would find this good fortune and eventually I began to wish the same.


I move my hand to cover my mouth as the smell from a nearby smoker starts to make me nauseous. Mama always reacts theatrically when she sees people smoking in the streets, always making an obvious coughing noise while using her fingers to block her nose. Mitsue once thought it would be funny to pretend that her toothpick was a cigarette, but Mama grabbed it off her so aggressively that she snapped it in half.

The bus drops me off about two blocks away from the store and I cross the road to head over. I’m still not used to these wide skirts and high heels, and for the last six days in a row, I’ve tripped on the exact same curb. It feels more embarrassing the more it continues to happen, so I make a conscious effort today to take each step carefully. I keep my eyes fixed on my feet and by the time I steady my footing and look up, I see him in front of me.

As he stands firmly in his spot, he stares at me, with an intensity that is both comforting and unnerving. He walks a couple of steps forward to place himself in my way, and I feel a lump start to form in my throat. Outside of work, I’ve never been this close to an officer on my own, and from the way he’s standing, I instantly wonder if I’ve done something wrong. My cheeks start to flush and suddenly I feel as if my face is burning just like the tea that scalded my lap this morning. He tells me that his name is Murphy and asks me where I’m going. It’s after eight at this point so I tell him in as few words as possible that I’m on my way to work. There’s a pause in his expression, which makes me unsure if I’ve chosen my words correctly, but after a moment he smiles.

“I like your dress,” he says, although he maintains complete eye contact with me and not my clothing. He is very tall, has dark brown hair and is clean shaven, even though it looks like he hasn’t slept well in a while. There’s a thin, fresh scar just under his left eye that doesn’t look self-inflicted, and a slight discolouration on his chin similar to a healing bruise. He has a deep voice and bright blue eyes. Although he’s wearing his heavy uniform, I can tell he has a strong build. He offers to walk me the rest of the way to work and I move my head in a gentle nod. We have workplace penalties in place if we misbehave around officers, so I feel obligated to agree even when I’m off the clock.

“So are you from Tokyo?” he asks.

I shake my head. “No, we moved here a few years ago. Are you?” I realise immediately what a stupid question it is, though he laughs kindly.

“No, I’m from Rhode Island actually.”

I don’t say anything to this, but Murphy continues speaking anyway. For some reason, the words begin to flow between us effortlessly. He tells me that he was raised on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, with his mother and two older brothers. He enlisted when the war started and served in the same infantry as his brothers until they were killed in battle. Now, he is desperate to return home to look after his mother.

“I don’t want her to be on her own, you know?”

I nod politely, though I’m not sure what else to say. We’re hovering now at the entrance to the store. I take this time to properly observe his face. I suppose Murphy is handsome, much like the movie stars in all those Hollywood films. Despite his menacing outward appearance, there is a gentleness in his speech that allows my shoulders to relax.

He apologises for keeping me and gives some strange kind of bow before wishing me a good day. Murphy is about to turn around to leave, but he hesitates. He turns back towards me and lets out a low, husky chuckle. He has a nice laugh, like the sound of a dove in the countryside and I blush after noticing that I’m smiling like a dummy back at him.

“I never asked for your name,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed our conversation so much that I forgot to ask.”

“My name is Sōma,” I say, as he moves in an inch closer. I can feel his breath on my skin. It’s hot and soft and somehow completely calming in a way that I have not experienced before. “Sorry, I mean my name is Sana. And I enjoyed talking to you too.”

“May I see you again, Sana?”