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She waited until he was ready to set out before demanding the time to pay her respects to the Imperial Palace, but he didn’t mind. He was in no hurry to put her in danger. He stood idly; saw the white through the holes over her buttocks, the cuts and sores on the soles of her feet. Then he was in a hurry and it firmed his resolve to reach the salt water today. When she finished, he simply started off and let her follow, but he went very quietly, in a partial crouch to let her know that danger should be expected at any moment. The forest was thinner, there was less cover for them and many open spaces. He didn’t head for the trail, but tried to go directly south to find the ocean. He searched the ground, too, for signs left by other men. In December his sub company had not reconnoitered west of its trail, so he didn’t know what to expect. Toward noon, he thought he caught sight of the ocean from the top of a small hill, seeing it in patches through the tall trees, but decided it must have been the effect of heat waves on his eyes. They hadn’t come far enough yet.
“Sit here and eat,” he told Michiyo, handing her the cloth containing the cooked rice. “I’m going to try and climb a tree high enough to see where we are.”
She looked up at them, some with networks of vines trailing down their sides. When Takakuwa cut a tough length of vine, tested the strength of it many times and seemed to be tying himself to one of the tallest trees, one with no branches or vines on it, she thought him really crazy. He had shed his haversack but kept on his weapons belt. When he took off his shoes his feet looked bloody to her. Then, she stopped eating because he was doing an amazing feat, going up the tree by holding it with
his feet, using the vine as a sort of sling, ascending in a series of crab-like movements, the muscles standing out on his bare legs, arms and all across his back. She watched him reach the first branch, a high one, then hang on for several minutes as if at the end of his strength. When he began to look out over the terrain, even behind him, she gave a long involuntary sigh of relief, caught herself and asked herself why, answering that she would be completely alone if he fell.
“If that vine is frayed,” she whispered, watching him start, “he’s going to fall on the way down.”
He didn’t, but it was a near thing. When he left it, she stole a look at the vine and saw with a shudder that it was mangled. Such a feat could not be criticized, nor could she praise it. She supposed he had watched the Melanesians do it, but also granted him the immense strength and agility it must have taken.
He said only: “When you’re ready, we can go. The area looks clear. I saw no smoke, ships or anything. We can be at the ocean by evening and the salt water will do much for your hurts.”
“Hai,” she nodded and watched the shoes go on
over his bleeding feet, worse now after the climb. If he was
ready, she certainly was and stood up.
Going forward again, stepping gingerly with the pain so much worse, thinking of how she had sobered and of the climb as perhaps a progressive move, he guessed that on the way to the sea he had brought them farther west than intended. Otherwise, there would have been some activity ahead. It looked good, however, as if they would be undisturbed for at least a day or so. After a rest, he would start east along the shore and make the attempt to get past the American positions and find a safe hiding place. The possibility of the soldiers and Marines moving along the coast to connect their lines was too great to stay long in the place for which he was now heading.
Within an hour, his feet were demanding many halts, but he did not take them. He only hoped that the drastic change in his gait would not be taken by the girl as a sign of weakness. Behind him and almost wincing with him, Michiyo also admitted to herself his ability to bear torture. Her own body hurt all over, in so many places she couldn’t distinguish between cuts and sores without looking, but it could be nothing compared to the pain of his torn feet. Putting them into the salt water will be like into the flames of a high fire, she thought and grimaced. If he does it without a cry, I guess I can bathe my sores and wash off the filth. For a coward, he’s certainly an accomplished soldier.
She thought she could smell the sea, but she said in pity, for she hated to see even an animal suffer: “May we rest a minute?”
It had been in too loud a voice and he stopped to warn her. Then he nodded and sat down, his chest heaving from the exertion of bearing pain. The blood was thick in his shoes, but wiping his feet would be no help. He thought he could make it to the salt water and preferred to wait. After eating the last two army biscuits and swallowing a mouthful of water, they sat in silence, numb, barely able to keep their minds intact in the wet heat.
He had been sitting with his head down, considering his personal discomfort, but suddenly he raised it, again on guard. There seemed to be no military personnel about, but he had completely forgotten the possibility of being seen and reported by Melanesians. Once, his eyes passed over hers, saw the alarm in them, so he showed by a gesture that he had heard nothing unusual.
“Melanesians seem to live near the coasts of this island and might be more dangerous than the Marines,” he whispered after she had moved closer. “They aren’t hostile like most savages, but recently some bad things have been done to some of them by our men and the news must have passed from one settlement to the next. I didn’t scout this area, so I don’t know if there are huts or not. If we are near Arawe and Cape Merkus, we’ll see several islands just off the coast. If not, we’ll be farther west toward Cape Peiho than I planned to go. To my knowledge, there’s no large settlement between here and there, but since there’s a Marine landing beach at Cape Bushing farther on, we have to expect them to come this way, if they haven’t already.”
Maybe if we could get to one of the little islands, he thought, it would be the safest place to stay.
“Here, Michiyo San,” he said, reaching over his shoulder under the flap of his haversack for his map case, “I’ll try to show you where I think we are and what is to the east of us. I’m sorry that the jungle thickens again in front of us. I saw it from the tree and that we have at least three kilometers to go. It isn’t certain that I saw the ocean, but there is some water ahead.”
He unfolded a worn map, largely prepared from aerial photos. “See, it was here,” he said, using his finger, “that we avoided the village of Didmop and crossed far to the west over the Pulie River. Then we came in a southwesterly direction and crossed the upper reaches of the Sigul River, only a stream to us at the place where we spent the night. I can’t account for the sparseness of the jungle over the last five kilometers or so, but it’s thicker just ahead. It’s difficult to travel this wilderness without a compass, but there are signs to follow and when we reach the sea, we can find our way. If within the next two kilometers we encounter another large stream, it should be the Omoi River and I’ll know exactly where we are. If not, we might be between it and the Arawe Peninsula. Or we might be west of all of it.”
“I don’t understand,” she whispered tonelessly, “why the perfect ex-soldier would forget his compass.”
“It hung on my belt,” he said, “but two weeks ago it was smashed by a bullet. Now are you ready to go on?”
She watched him grip the machete and stood up when he did, almost wanting to steady him when he swayed.
“I’ll only use the machete when absolutely necessary,” he said and shut his eyes against a wave of dizziness. “Today the noise will carry far.”
Straightening his shoulders, then pushing them forward to stretch the muscles in them, he swung the blade once or twice over the ground, testing his arm, then turned and walked stiff-legged in among the trees with Michiyo following numbly, coming soon on a wall of tangled foliage. At first he began to crawl and force his way, often stopping to pull her through after him, but after a few minutes of this he had to stand and make a way for them.
Her notions of fleeing him toward the nearest Japanese force had all but disappeared, perhaps because the map had been so confusing. She had noted the place names of where the Imperial forces were supposed to be, but if there was a chance that the American army lines separated her from them, it would be foolish to try an escape. Besides, only a direct view of an Imperial encampment would give her the chance. Also, the jungle was impenetrable without a blade and she didn’t have the strength to swing it long enough. So more and more, she was beginning to appreciate her escort and would certainly use him until her opportunity came.
The next four hours were some of the most torturous of his life. Throwing himself forward like a blinded animal, he hacked and tore at the vines, stumbled on his ruined feet through slimy water, very noisily and without regard now for any enemy. The sea somewhere before him became the only objective and if he was killed on the way, it made no difference. For once he ignored the safety of Michiyo in the urgency of getting himself to the healing water. He encountered no large stream, no river, thought himself east of it, when all of a sudden, he broke through the end of a green barrier under palm trees and there was the sea. He stumbled forward only a few paces, machete in his bleeding hand, before he sank to his knees on the cleared ground, bending over as if in a bow, the sun’s rays on water like an explosive flash in his eyes. He was unconscious before his head struck the sand, just at the high-water mark.
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