Masaru once told me that as a boy, his father had taken him to Mount Iimori, which overlooked Tsuruga Castle, scene of a famous battle in the Boshin War. “Your uncle Itō died here,” Masaru’s father explained. “Itō was a young Aizu samurai, as was our father before us. Itō was a member of the Byakkotai, the White Tiger Corps, a reserve army of teenagers. Young samurai, but samurai nonetheless.”
Masaru’s father Keisuke stood atop the hill and gazed down to the tiered castle, a pagoda that rose like a pyramid with six roofs. Like his son, he was tall for a Japanese man. “Your uncle’s squad was cutoff during battle, separated from the rest of their unit. When they reached this hill, they looked down to the see castle aflame, the surrounding town burning. Fearing their families and lord defeated and dead, these honorable men committed seppuku. Suicide by disembowelment, Masaru-san. They died right here on this spot.”
Masaru followed his father as the Japanese Army general took a step back to observe a stone monument that had been constructed in honor of the Byakkotai. “But they were wrong in their assessment. The castle had not been breached. Though a battle was underway, the town had not fallen and the war continued. But for their loyalty to their people and to their lord, these men were honored with this memorial.” Keisuke pointed to the stone edifice. “Read the inscription, my son.”
Masaru leaned in and read the words, “‘No matter how many people wash the stones with their tears, these names will never vanish from the world.’” Etched into the monument were the names of all nineteen Byakkotai who had died that day.
“Only one of them survived, his attempt at seppuku failed, and the story became legend.” Keisuke looked to his son. “Your Uncle Itō died the most glorious, the most honorable death imaginable. Remember what you see here today, my son. Do not forget the story of these great, young men. The story of your blood. Remember this lesson.”
Masaru told me the story proudly the first time I met him. We were young military doctors at that time, taking a break from our training by lunching in a cold cafeteria in a forgotten army barracks somewhere, years before Unit 731 had even been devised.
“My father had no close relatives who died so wondrously,” I replied to the man who would soon become my superior officer. “My family line does not flow with the blood of samurai. I am the son of a doctor, and the son of a soldier.”
We ate. We discussed our training. The year was 1928, or 1929. I don’t remember. But I do remember pouring myself a glass of milk.
While reading a folded newspaper with one hand I poured milk with the other. Sun today, rain tomorrow, a local shop robbed by two youths on bicycles, a dead body found near the river. Before I could flip to read the opposite side of the paper, my glass of milk overflowed and spilled to the floor. The bottle was still tilted in my hand as the milk poured forth into a volcanic overflow of cold, white liquid. Rushing to stop the catastrophe, I pulled the jar away, yet too quickly as I managed to brush the top of the overflowing milk glass and sent it to the floor with a spectacular explosion of glass, bubbles and liquid.
Masaru laughed loudly, a deep, bellowing cackle. He pointed at me and then to the spill on the ground, shaking his head as his laughter faded and his attention returned to his lunch. He threw a napkin into the spill, more to prevent the milk from polluting his lunch than to help me contain the accident.
“Damn it,” I cursed as I threw my paper aside and grabbed a handful of napkins. Dropping to my knees to clean the spill, I was disappointed to see the milk was filling the cracks between the tiles like glue. If it dried it would smell and the rest of the officers would begin to wonder why the cafeteria hadn’t been cleaned. Alas, it was only a glass of milk. Or so I thought so at the time.
As I used to towel to mop at the puddle of milk and collect the broken glass into a small pile I realized I would not be able to clean every drop, or gather every razor-sharp, microscopic slice of glass. My accident had polluted the cafeteria floor. Always there would be chunks of glass caught in the cracks of the tile along with flakes of dried milk and fibers from the towel I was using to clean my mess.
I imagined an accident like this spread across the entire building, amplified with enough milk and glass to poison an entire village. I sat on my bottom and held a milky piece of curved glass before my eyes, gazing into the past, into the construction of the object. Wondering who had created this handy piece of kitchenware.
I gazed across the milky waste of the tile floor. “I wonder if it’s possible to create a weapon that did this.”
I suddenly had Masaru’s attention. “What are you talking about?”
“A bomb that once detonated would pollute its surroundings with poison.”
“Like a gas bomb? Mustard gas or something? I believe such tactics were banned by Geneva Protocol a few years ago.”
As I pondered the components of such a device a small black ant wandered into view and approached the smeared milk spill, his feelers twisting and poking every direction as he assessed the mysterious white nectar.
“What if instead of spreading poison, the bomb spread parasites? Or a virus? Or some other kind of contagious agent?”
Masaru sat back and listened.
“What if instead of a bomb that explodes with ordinance and shrapnel, it explodes with disease?”
“A bomb that spreads poison, parasites and disease?”
Masaru stared blankly at me for a moment, his mind processing the scope and complexity of my proposal. Then he smiled, slowly at first, as if he were unsure such an idea warranted a smile. Then he reached out and patted my shoulder. “An idea fit for the Emperor himself!”
Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.