“Sister, we die now?”
“If it is God’s will, Nango.”
The American bombardment had gone on for nearly an hour, and it seemed the big sand fortress might collapse beneath the weight of the mighty shells. Still, even as the thunderous assault sent down a rain of sand and coral dust on top of them, Sister Mary Kathleen smiled encouragingly at the muscular and intricately tattooed young man who had asked her the most pertinent question. She reflected, even at that awful moment, that they were quite the pair. Except for a wrap of bright red lava-lava cloth about his waist and a necklace of white cowrie shells and shark’s teeth around his thick brown neck, Nango was essentially naked. She, on the other hand, was completely clothed from the top of her head to her slippered feet in the white shrouds of the habit of her sisterhood, the Order of the Sacred Blood. She allowed her smile to fall on the other fella boys, too. They had backed against the wall and were regarding her in anxious silence. “Prayers, me boys,” she told them, pressing her hands together and letting her smile broaden to show them she wasn’t afraid, even though she was. “Let them flow up to heaven. I’m praying to me little Saint Monessa, God bless her. She’ll get us through this. I’m certain of it.”
One of the fella boys replied in their native tongue, a dialect of the Marquesan language, which was itself a subgroup of ancient, premissionary Tahitian. “I think the Japanese will kill us soon, Sister.”
“Japonee no killem me!” another of the fella boys replied hotly in pidgin. It was Tomoru, a giant of a man, covered like the rest with elaborate blue tattoos. He puffed out his hairless, muscular chest. “Me killem Japonee, Sister. You say, me do.”
“No, Tomoru,” she replied in his language. “Do not say such things, even in pidgin. They may understand.”
“They” were the Japanese troops, the rikusentai, Imperial marines, who had crowded inside the sand-covered fortress to stoically wait out the ferocious American naval artillery pounding of Betio, the main island of the atolls called Tarawa. In contrast to the near-boredom of the Imperial troops, most of whom were quietly sitting on the earthen floor, Sister Mary Kathleen observed a nearby naval lieutenant whose legs were trembling. Each time a shell landed nearby, his startled eyes darted toward the dull roar of the explosion, and then he would visibly swallow. Sister Mary Kathleen’s heart went out to the man. He was clearly terrified, yet so constrained by his nationality and rank that all he could allow himself was an inner scream that she could hear quite clearly.
When a lull in the bombardment went longer than a minute, Sister Mary Kathleen caught the Japanese lieutenant’s eye, and he hurried over. “May I help you, Sister?” he asked, breathlessly.
She nodded and said in a near whisper, “I’m sorry, Lieutenant Soichi, but I really must go.”
She nodded again, her summer blue eyes modestly downcast. “Go,” she reiterated.
“Ahhhh,” Lieutenant Soichi said, understanding now. “Go. Well, I understand why you would not care to squat over a pot like the others. I will be pleased to accompany you outside now that the shelling has stopped for the moment. But we will have to hurry.”
“I am quite able to hurry, Lieutenant,” she said, smiling at him.
He tried to smile back, but he was too nervous, and it came out a bit crooked. “Let me just explain the situation to Captain Sakuri.” He cast an uneasy glance at the native men behind her and confided, “Those men, they always look like they want to murder me.”
“Aye, Lieutenant. That is because they do.”
“Ah, well,” he shrugged. “I suppose they have good reason.”
She nodded. “Yes. Very good reason. More than you might imagine.”
After absorbing her comment, Soichi bobbed his head and then picked his way through the lounging troops and thence to a rikusentai officer who harangued him about something for several minutes, then dismissively waved him away. Soichi bowed to the man deeply, then put on his helmet and hurried back to the nun. “We may go now, Sister. If you’ll follow me.” He nodded toward an aperture in the fortress, one of two.
The aperture led to a zigzag corridor lined with sandbags stacked ten feet high. Since he had designed the sand fortress, the lieutenant proudly explained the purpose of the crooked opening. “If a bomb or artillery shell should explode outside, Sister, its force and shrapnel have no direct path to the interior of the fortress. My design also forces attackers to come through the corridor no more than one or two at a time. This makes it easier for defense.”
“Faith, ’tis a grand design, indeed,” Sister Mary Kathleen said with feigned enthusiasm, feigned because she wished to continue to curry the lieutenant’s favor. He had been kind to her and her fella boys since their arrival on the atoll, and she feared what might happen without his influence. “Where did ye learn to build such a truly magnificent fort, Lieutenant?”
Soichi shrugged, though it was plain from his expression that he was pleased by her compliment. “I studied a few books on field fortification architecture,” he said modestly, “and I used my imagination.”
“It shows, Lieutenant. Aye, it does.”
Soichi nodded in gratitude, then led her through the sandbagged corridor to the outside, where dawn was struggling to appear. The sand and powdered coral covering the flat atoll was made pink by the rising sun, which glowed like a distant ember through the dust raised by the barrage. The air stank of scorched gunpowder. It burned her nose and made her sneeze.
“God bless you, Sister,” Soichi said without irony.
She sneezed again. “Oh, this awful sulfurous smell! It is a hellish stench!”
Soichi sucked loudly between his teeth. “Yes, Sister, the stink of hell, indeed.” He chose a path behind a steep wall of sand. “Here we will be safe. I designed this embankment to stop naval artillery, which tends to come in flat. The shells hit and throw up dirt but otherwise have no effect. I had many such walls built all over the island.” Soichi stopped and pointed toward a grove of palm trees and low bushes that were sheltered by the sand wall. “Now, Sister, if you’ll go there, I will stay here to ensure your privacy.”
She expressed her gratitude, then had her private moment in the bushes and returned to find Soichi consulting his wristwatch. “I think the Americans will be starting their bombardment again soon,” he told her. “You must hurry back to the fortress. Just follow the path.”
“Yer not going with me?”
“Yes. I mean no. I’m sorry. Answering such a question with a negative when it should require a positive is a peculiarity of English that is hard for most Japanese to grasp. But never mind. Yes, I’m not going back because I intend to find a hole to crawl into and somehow survive the coming battle. Captain Sakuri, as you may have noticed, is not pleased with me. He thinks I am weak because I do not share his enthusiasm for dying. If I go back with you, I think he intends to force me to lead some kind of insane banzai charge.”
“I shall miss ye, Lieutenant,” she said truthfully. “Ye’ve been like a knight to a lady in distress.”
He bobbed his head. “It has been my pleasure, Sister. Now come with me. I wish to show you something.”
He led her up the slant of the embankment and then bade her to lie down beside him so that they could just peek over it. Her flowing white habit rustled as she flattened herself against the warm sand. On the other side, she observed a cratered moonscape and a grove of shattered palm trees. Beyond was a glittering lagoon, and past it lay an astonishing number of big gray ships strung broadside to the beach.
“The American fleet,” Lieutenant Soichi advised. “Aboard those ships are many rough, angry men. Admiral Shibasaki has laid down a challenge to them. He says a million Americans could not take Tarawa in ten thousand years. I think it will take considerably less. They will be landing very soon.” He inclined his head in her direction. “Why don’t you go with me, Sister? I think there’s a chance we could even make it to the next island. The crossing is shallow.”
She could not take her eyes off the ships, wondering about the men aboard them, imagining them looking back at the atoll, and what they might be thinking. Were they frightened? Or perhaps they were eager for a day of fighting. The only Americans she had ever been near were rich yachtsmen who had pulled into the harbor near the convent on Ruka. Of course, she had not been allowed to talk to them. Only the older nuns and the priests had enjoyed their fellowship. Her impression of them, based on brief observations, was that they were a bit loud, and their women a bit aloof.
“Sister? Did you hear me?” Soichi asked.
“Aye, Lieutenant, I heard ye, but surely ye know I cannot abandon me fella boys.”
Soichi sucked between his teeth. “You don’t understand, Sister. The rikusentai, haven’t you noticed their preparations? They can hardly wait to die. This battle is going to be a bloody nightmare. I beg you to escape it. Come with me.”
Her smile was grateful but her answer firm. “No, Lieutenant. I cannot. If I die here, then God’s will be done. Me fella boys and I have come far together, and together we will stay.”
He nodded. “I understand. You are loyal. It is a fine thing to be loyal.”
“Dear lieutenant,” Sister Mary Kathleen said, “how was it you came to this terrible place?”
His answer was bitter. “My father thought it best if I joined the militarists. It was a business decision, you see. We import and export a variety of goods and require many government permissions. So, despite my most excellent American education, I entered the navy and was sent here to this awful place. I do so hope this pleases my honorable father! And you, Sister? How did you come to be here? It has never been clear to me.”
“I suppose ye might say it began when I took me vows in Ireland,” was her wistful answer. “’Tis a long story.”
“Then I regret I shan’t stay to hear it,” Lieutenant Soichi replied cordially. He led her down to the base of the embankment, then waited while she shook the sand from her habit.
Although there was little doubt he was ready to leave, and quickly, Soichi tarried long enough to give her some final advice. “Stay in the fortress, Sister. I designed it well. It will survive the bombardment, although your ears will surely ring from all the noise. When the invasion comes, find a dark corner, you and your Polynesians. Crouch down and keep yourselves quiet. From their talk, I fear some of the rikusentai may decide to vent their frustrations on you. Never look them in the eye, that’s my counsel. To them, it is a sign of aggression to which they must respond. Be meek and humble and perhaps you will get by.”
She put out her hand to him. “Meek and humble. ’Tis the nun’s stock-in-trade, Lieutenant! Thank ye for looking after us so far.”
“Sister, my countrymen are all going to die. Pray for them, if you will. They are brave men who think they are doing the right thing.”
“Yes, all right, Lieutenant,” she answered. “God go with ye now.”
“We’ll find out if He’s with me soon enough, Sister,” Soichi answered, then bowed to her, put his hand on top of his helmet, and ran like a rabbit. Sister Mary Kathleen watched him go, watched him pick his way through a scruffy bramble of wilted sea grapes and then pause before making a run across an open field. He was heading for another long barrier of sand, and he almost made it. Halfway across the field, there came from overhead a horrible screeching noise, and Lieutenant Soichi froze, then looked up as if God had called him to show his face to heaven. That was the last time Sister Mary Kathleen, or anyone, ever saw him. The hideous screech ended in a vast, terrible roar of orange fire, molten steel, and flying sand.
Lieutenant Soichi, Sister Mary Kathleen’s only Japanese friend on the atolls of Tarawa, was gone forever, vaporized by a huge American naval artillery round that otherwise dug a shallow crater in not much of anything. She looked resentfully toward the sky, then angrily crossed herself. “Saint Monessa!” she called. “Fly to God, my dear sweet child. Beg for me. Ye are my only chance!”
As if in reply, angels in heaven shrieked back their hatred of her. Shaken, it took a moment before she realized it was not a snarling heavenly host but screaming death hurtling anew from the sea. Sister Mary Kathleen cast another pleading look at the sky, then put her head down and ran for her life.
Copyright © 2007 by Homer Hickam. All rights reserved.