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In the heart of dawn, everything was still. Except for Midori. Journal in hand, she hiked the forest path. The gilded boughs of treetops glimmered from the early April storm. The sun summited the horizon, shining its lustrous, honeyed rays onto the evergreen foliage. Midori traced the waxy bark with her free hand, its coarse texture leaving tiny splinters in her palm.
A woman watched from behind. “Honey, let’s go. It’s wet out.” Candice stretched her arms, yawning. The morning light left a soft halo around her sleepy form and blonde hair.
“One second,” Midori replied, opening her journal. Just then, the songbirds began to rise, chirping the first aubade of daybreak. Their high-pitched symphony warbled into her ears, sounding from afar like a mother’s cry.
* * *
Midori was twelve when she lost her birth mother.
The afternoon started out like any other. Her junior high school’s final bell chimed. She tossed her knapsack over her shoulder. Strapping a helmet over her head, she pedaled the half mile to her apartment.
The route home was ordinary. A departing fall breeze whistled through Osaka’s streets. Midori’s bicycle wheels crunched against a crisp mound of fallen leaves as a post-autumn chill pricked goosebumps on her arms. She waved to the friendly street vendor with the crooked front tooth. Passed through local markets and shops. The aroma of Korean BBQ from the restaurant a block over wafted into the air. Neighborhood children kicked a soccer ball into the middle of the promenade. Everything around her felt like home. She smiled. Not knowing it would all disappear.
Sunlight fluttered in slants through the clapboard houses. She thought of all the camping trips she and her mother took. Her mother had studied ornithology in college. Ever since she was three, they took road trips to the Sea of Trees, where majestic breeds of birds dwelt. Opening their journals, they’d sketch the curvature of each bird’s wings, beak, and plumage. What started out as fun little trips turned into a childhood hobby. They’d hike for miles along the mountainside forest, endless Shizuoka daylight dancing through dew-dropped leaves. Komorebi. Midori’s favorite type of scenery. It had no direct English translation but described a moment when sunlight filtered through leaves. Throughout the day, they’d bird-watch and trek the snow-capped peaks and cliffs. All the world’s shimmering light filtering through the grooves of tree bark and bird nests. The music of warbles and chirps filling the air like a balloon. At night, they’d camp out under the sweltering rural stars. Fireflies would illuminate her mother’s face, fatigued with warmth and laughter. She would bury herself in the crook of her mother’s neck. The drum of their heartbeats echoing contentment. Moments like those, there was not a place she’d rather be.
Midori walked into the doorway of her apartment. She caught the shadow of her mother’s hands, buried deep in a bamboo basin. Her mother was rinsing her fingers, having kneaded dough for takoyaki, Midori’s favorite snack.
“Ma, I’m home,” she shouted before hopping upstairs to check on Baba, her grandfather. At 83 years of age, he had survived fate’s ruthless wrath. Barely a teenager when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Baba was one of 48,000 hibakushas. That fatal day, his limbs had seared from head to toe. He had collapsed with the timber roofing, the pain so severe he was surely about to die. Until a classmate reached for his hand and carried him to a military hospital. They had never spoken up to that moment. And it would take two years for him to walk again. But the scars – the flash burns marring his back and his jaw disjointed from the radiation – remained permanently on him, a reminder of what was lost.
Midori’s presence was the only medicine that could soothe Baba’s aching heart. His entire family had died from the impact, and the classmate who rescued him had committed suicide a few months after the bombing. These events became hideous burdens that weighed down his mind constantly. At night, he suffered from heart palpitations and excessive sweating. Intense screaming fits that lasted for hours on end. Jugular veins protruding from his neck, throat raw as a corpse.
“Good afternoon, Baba.” Midori brushed a finger through his gray-wisp hair. He wheezed, having long lost the ability to speak. As her mother prepared dinner, she knelt by Baba’s bedside and read from her bird-watching journal about her latest expedition. Her mother bought the journal for her when she was four. She carried it with her everywhere she went. Filled to the brim with sketches and field notes, it was almost as old as herself.
“See this plump fellow, with his short bill and button-brown eyes?” Midori pointed to a photo of a passerine bird poised on a branch, its feathers camouflaged by petals of the open sun. “That’s a yellow bunting. Isn’t he cute?”
Baba nodded, his amusement coming out as painful coughs. A few minutes later, Midori’s mother called them down for dinner, and the sound of flipping scrapbook pages was replaced by the clattering of bowls and silverware. Midori glanced outside. Cold water cascaded in light drizzles onto the sidewalks. She heard a crow screech in the distance, a black mass of feathers against the gray sky.
All of Japan knew that the monsoon season had been irregular. The Southeast winds typically summoned a maelstrom of rain in late June. Midori remembered her childhood summers: the air sticky and humid like an overheated car seat. But that year, the climate patterns changed. June passed, then July and August. Her violet umbrella, purchased for a handful of yen from a village elder in the Tennoji district, leaned against the coat rack unused. In the distant countryside, farmers re-evaluated their Kharif crops, which wilted in the dry earth. Everyone knew that the weather had been unpredictable.
But no one could’ve foreseen what was about to occur.
Midori was sipping on a bowl of Sumashijiru, scraps of shrimp and dashi sauce dripping down her chin, when the flood began. There was no warning, no pause like the void between thunder and lightning. It came all at once: a dagger plunging into Japan’s native flesh, no beginning or end in sight. From nowhere, a deafening crescendo of rain assailed upon the city like meteorites. The Yodo river, just a few miles away, deluged the asphalt alleyways like Persephone crashing into the gates of Hell. Unleashing a Leviathan destruction.
The first time Midori experienced true fear was when she was five. Her mother had taken her to the Kuromon flea market. Tourists bustled about, wide-eyed at the rows of overpriced souvenirs and exotic foods. A vendor tried to con her mother into buying a fake-diamond necklace.
“Your daughter will love the butterfly design,” he leered, baring a set of jagged yellow teeth. “For you, only 26,000 yen.”
“Bullshit, watashi no tomodachi,” her mother cursed in Japanese. The vendor flashed a lopsided smirk.
“Mama,” Midori nudged the sleeve of her mother’s Kanji-print shirt. She pointed to a rack of Hello Kitty mementos.
“It’s her favorite icon,” her mother explained. “Which one do you want, love?” She gestured at the endless sea of key-chains, LED spinners, and snapbacks. Midori reached for a pen with Hello Kitty patterns.
Suddenly, the ground beneath them started to quake. It rumbled like a lion roaming free from its cage, knocking over fruit crates and stand signs. Midori clutched onto her mother as they ducked beneath the canopy of a seafood stall. A jolt of panic coursed through her veins like electricity. Tremors collided into the limestone tiles with a bang! She tucked her head into her mother’s lap. Fifteen seconds lasted a lifetime.
The mini-earthquake subdued. Her mother stood up, brushing rubble from her pant leg.
“How much for that pen?” she interrupted the silence.
“You can have it,” the vendor replied weakly, hunched in the corner of his booth.
“Pleasure doing business with you, sir,” she laughed. Midori stared in awe at her mother’s calmness.
“Don’t forget to visit me when you head off to college,” her mother said on the ride home. Midori knit her brow. The statement came out of nowhere. She toyed with her Hello Kitty pen.
“I’m five,” she mumbled.
“There’s not nearly enough time,” her mother sighed. Midori didn’t think she was supposed to hear that. In the rear-view mirror, she saw her mother’s eyes, focused on her instead of the road. In the glaring sun, they glittered golden as drops of Citrine. Her mother smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
Now, Midori felt that same degree of terror seep through her bones. Her mother was the first one to sense the disturbance. A severe darkness clouded her eyes, and frown lines creased her forehead. Something about the atmosphere – the vortex of wind punching trees and buildings, the sky eclipsing into blackness – felt wrong. This was more than an ordinary thunderstorm. She sprang from her floor cushion, pale as a ghost.
“The hospital across the street – it’s the tallest building in the neighborhood. We need to move now, watashi no ai.” Her lips trembled as she spoke, calloused knuckles bruised purple. Midori had never seen her mother, sturdy as a rock, this nervous before.
After gathering a few necessities, they stepped outside into perilous territory. A gust of icy rain pelted their skin like bullets. They ran, breathless, against the angry torrent. The scene unfolded in front of their eyes inescapably. Shouts and wails drowned amid the howling wind. Cars submerged windscreen-high in verminous brown water. Pedestrians scattered in every direction, escalating in panic at the sheer chaos.
Midori’s lungs felt like they had caught fire. The three of them flailed against the current, frigid water sloshing against their pallid skin. Every step, every breath, felt like drowning. They reached the hospital drenched in sweat and rain. They shivered in the tattered remains of their clothes. Midori looked up as she heard her grandfather wheeze. The elevators had broken, and there was no way to reach higher ground but the stairs. She cried out at this realization. Her grandfather staggered into a wall, nearly choking on his own breath. Baba didn’t have the strength or health to make the flight of stairs.
“Go, akachan,” Midori’s mother pleaded, trying to keep her voice steady.
“No… No…” Midori’s knees buckled in horror. “I can’t leave you behind…”
“Please, love. I’ll carry him with me. I promise we’ll get there.” Her mother struggled as she attempted to haul Baba onto her shoulders. “You need to go up now. It’s the only way you’ll be safe.”
The din of crashing waves pounded against the hospital glass. Midori bit her lip. “I love you,” she sobbed.
“We love you too. Don’t forget that,” her mother whispered helplessly. Like a final goodbye.
Midori looked at her mother trying to help Baba to his feet. She clenched and unclenched her fists, trying to steady her nerves. Once. Twice. Then, as the flood outside raged to its climax, she climbed the ten flights of stairs to the highest floor.
That was the last time she saw her family.
* * *
The orphanage was a crumbling shelter. Its plaster walls rusted chemical-orange from corrosion. Cicadas buzzed in dirt-caked corners, chewing the entire facade hollow. Midori shared a bed with two other girls. Meals consisted of plates of white rice and packets of powder tea.
After the flood wrecked the mainland, prime minister Shinzō Abe had declared it a national disaster. International rescue teams infiltrated the country, searching for injured citizens and identifying dead ones. The clean-up effort was immense. TV news vans scoured the streets in search of cooperative survivors, their microphones embroidered with logos such as CNN and NBC. Midori listened to radio broadcasts and perused newspaper headlines. She searched for her mother and grandfather’s names among the lists of deceased, falling short every time. A sinking feeling settled in her gut. She was afraid the abyss of the unknown would consume her.
Winter passed. Some children mourned the death of their family members. Others rejoiced in pure bliss as they reconciled with loved ones. And then there were those like Midori. Stuck in the uncertain gap between. Nothing to do but wait. Nowhere left to go.
The orphans who had lost everything were placed into foster care, awaiting new families to raise them. Others who were luckier got placed into kinship care, taken under the guardianship of distant relatives. Each day, the number of displaced children decreased. Midori woke up with the same kids, some of whom she recognized from school, the hope and life sucked out of their faces. After six months of waiting, the makeshift orphanage shut down. All the remaining kids were enlisted to foster agencies. For the first time since the flood, she cried.
A few days later, Midori met her temporary foster parents. John, an American with brusque brown hair, tall and lanky. Candice, a woman with sharp cheekbones, sand-blonde hair, and matching blue eyes. Midori knew that the arrangement would last only a few months, but she shied away from their glances.
“Hello, there. I’m John. This is my fiancée, Candice.” John smiled nervously. “What’s your name, honey?”
Even with mandatory English classes, Midori understood little. “Mi-do-ri,” she sounded out, embarrassed. They chuckled at her blushing cheeks.
A-mer-i-ca. She tried the foreign word on her tongue. In a few hours, she’d be flying on an airplane for the first time. Traveling to the United States with Candice and John, whom she hadn’t even known existed a day ago.
“I can’t imagine your situation.” Candice stroked Midori’s straight black hair at the airport. “We’ll take care of you, I promise.”
On the plane, John and Candice attempted to talk to her, but their English syntax fell upon deaf ears. They exchanged worried looks. Midori plastered an artificial grin, then asked where the restroom was.
“That way, sweetheart.” John pointed.
In the airplane bathroom, Midori heaved her lunch. She stayed in there for ten minutes, watching strings of bile and saliva cling to her mouth. John knocked on the bathroom door. She didn’t respond. After a long pause, he walked back to his seat.
* * *
The plane flew over Utah, lowering onto the Salt Lake International Airport runway. From her peripheral, Midori saw miles and miles of desert flatland. Passengers turned on their smartphones and erupted in noisy chatter upon arrival. She never felt so small in her life.
Their house was a brick colonial nestled in the quiet suburbs of Kaysville. It had an all-American white picket fence, blue shutters, and a shingled roof. The lawn freshly mowed. A flower bed of petunias on the windowsill. A minivan in the driveway. It was the epitome of suburbia.
Midori had expected an empty room. The walls sparsely decorated, perhaps a simple twin bed. Instead, her bedroom was sea-blue and in the center laid a queen-sized bed with robin’s-egg-blue upholstery and feather-light pillows. She unpacked her few belongings. Her mother's violet umbrella. Her Hello Kitty pen. Her birding journal, the pages of which had dampened to molten shades during the flood. She bit her lip. She had no photographs of her family, their only presence in her memory. She needed to preserve them somehow. Opening her journal, she began sketching her mother and grandfather’s faces, using the ceiling light to assess the shading. Candice lingered in the doorway. Midori finished. She turned the drawing to face Candice.
“Your family is beautiful,” Candice murmured. Midori wanted to look away – a thing, she realized, she’d been doing since they met -- but instead returned her gaze. They both smiled.
* * *
Midori leaned against the living room wall, bathed in dusk’s glow. Hushed whispers emanated from the kitchen.
“I can’t believe you, John! To think so selfishly… Midori—she has a family still out there for God’s sake!”
“Still out there,” his voice cracked humorlessly. “Even if they are, the chances of finding them are dismal.”
A single slap pierced the air.
“It’s the damn truth,” he spat. “At least with us, she’ll have a decent life.”
Midori held her breath. John continued. “Otherwise, three months from now, the poor girl will be jumping from foster home to foster home.” Silence ensued. “Is that what you want?”
“You can’t just ask her to sign the adoption papers. Not after what she’s gone through,” Candice whispered. Midori could hear the tears in her voice.
“I – I don’t know what to do,” John sighed. Midori didn’t know either. Silently, she slipped out the door, no destination in mind. Needing to be alone.
Rain descended in cold sheets onto the pavement. It sloshed against Midori’s boots as she walked to the community park. At the park, the swing set tottered in the lifeless breeze, akin to a mother's wail.
A trail began at the playground's edge, speckled with fir trees. Their coniferous branches twisted wayward toward the fading sunset.
There was something hallowing about the woods, tranquil but for the pit-pat of the April shower. From her knapsack, Midori pulled out her Hello Kitty pen. Her hands trembled. She opened her journal, brimming with her own and her mother’s handwriting. They had planned to fill it with a lifetime’s worth of bird-watching data together. Midori spotted a starling perched atop a branch, teaching its nestling how to fly. She had seen several starlings in Japan but hadn’t known that they existed in Utah as well. She recalled the first time she saw a starling.
Her mother had discovered a nest of their turquoise eggs. "These guys can endure through nearly any condition. They are truly a wonder," her mother had noted.
Even in the downpour, a ring of sunlight silhouetted the trees' raiment of leaves. It reflected into the starlings' eyes, which beamed golden as drops of Citrine.
Turning to a blank page, Midori began to draw.
Hackettstown, New Jersey
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