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Other Stories of the Atomic Age edited and introduced by
collection, “The Crazy Iris” by Masuji Ibuse and “Summer Flowers” by
Tamiki Flowers. After reading “Summer Flowers”, about the first few
days after the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima, I said to myself this is
the saddest story I have ever read. Now I think “The Empty Can”, a
gentle and beautiful tale of memory by a woman who was in Nagasaki when the second atom bomb exploded may well be a sadder tale.
Hayashi was a young woman in her late teens that had been moblized by the government along with a number of her classmates in an exclusive girl’s school in Nagasaki to work in a munitions factory. She and her classmates were at work August 9, 1945 when the bomb exploded. They all survived. Thirty years later she and four of her classmates meet for a reunion at the old school. "The Empty Can" tells us what happen to the women in the thirty years since the bomb exploded. The reunion conjures up memories of the day the A Bomb exploded.
The school the girls attended had been turned into a munitions factory. At first the women recall how the blast broke all the window panes and bent the frames. After the war the building went back to being a school
but in the remaining two years of Kyoko’s schooling there were no window panes in the school. The replaced windows are the first thing they talk about. (The women have not seen each other for many years.)
As they enter the school auditorium old memories come to the fore. On October 1, 1945 the school held a memorial service for the students who died in the blast.
They had both survived but many others had died on the floor under the watchful eye of teachers and friends. Out of a student body of nearly 1300 300 had died between that day and October 1, 1945. Some had been recruited to work in the munitions factory, some had died in their own homes a few days later. As the names of each student was read, there was a stirring among the students who survived….The parents of the students who had survived...The parents of the students who had died sat along the three walls. The parents were in tears before the service began. The tears turned to sobs and the sobs drifted toward the center of the room.
During the memorial service Oki’s name had been read as one of the dead. She had in fact survived. She had been terribly hurt in he blast and her parents came to get her and no one heard from her after that so it was assumed she was dead. She has never been well since that day and is now scheduled thirty years later to have fragments of glass that were embedded in her back that day removed. There is a huge waiting list for public hospitals at the time to treat bomb survivors. All of the women live on in fear of radiation sickness which can occur many years after exposure. Of the three women in "The Empty Can" three have never married and seemingly have never had a relationship. (Atomic bomb survivors were very unwanted as spouses as it was felt they could not produce healthy children.)
There are several heart breaking stories relayed by the women as they recall old friends.
They all suddenly recall Kimuko and the empty can she always had with her.
“Remember Kimuko’s empty can? …she put her father and mother’s bones in an empty can and brought it her every day…I remember the girl who came to school every day with the bones of her parents in her school bag. The girl kept the bones in lidless can that had been searedred by the flames. To keep the bones from falling out, she had covered the top with newspaper, and she tied it with red string. When the girl arrived at her seat she took the empty can, picking it up carefully with both hands, and placed it on the right side of her desk. At first none of us had known what was in the empty can. And the girl did not show any sign of wanting to tell us, either. No one questioned her about it. The love that could be seen in the girl's fingertips when she handled the can made us feel all the more reluctant to ask. One day their new calligraphy teacher, recently discharged from the military and returned to his prewar job, asked her what was in the can she always put on her desk.
“The girl hung her head and held the can on the knees of her work pants. The she began to cry. The teacher
asked her why. “It is my parents. Then she began to cry. The teacher took the can from the girl's hands, and placed it in the center of the desk on the platform. May your parents rest in peace. Let us have a moment of
silent prayer in their memory”, he said and closed his eyes. After a long silence, the teacher handed the can back to the girl and said, "After this leave it at home. Your parents will be there waiting for you when. It is better that way."
“The Empty Can” is only seventeen pages long. It has more power to move than many works 30 times longer. We feel we know the people in the story and in some small way can feel how the bomb stole the lives of the living as well as the dead. "The Empty Can (first published in 1978) is not a bitter work. It is sadder and wiser for that.