Julie Wu reads from her debut novel, The Third Son, published in April by Algonquin Books.
My journey began when the Americans bombed us, in 1943, because it was during the bombings that I met the girl.
I was eight years old. In the weeks before Taiwan was bombed, I sat on the floor while my father sat in his armchair by the radio in our great room. A cigarette burned between the massive fingers of his hand as he translated the Japanese imperial broadcasts for us.
I placed myself as far out of his reach as I could, just apart from my six brothers and sisters. We were all afraid of him; just the sound of his heavy steps on the front walk in the evening would scatter us like birds, flying off to disappear into the far corners of the house. Here, in forced proximity, we were silent, as un-obtrusive as we could be, only our slippers making nervous scuffling sounds on the floor.
We all understood Japanese. Taiwan had been a Japanese colony since 1895. Japanese was our official language, and even our family name, Togo, was Japanese. But in our heads and in our home we spoke and were Taiwanese, descendants of the Mainland Chinese, and only my father understood the subtle nuances of Japanese language and culture that gave meaning to the official broadcasts.
My father’s eyes, set deep in his fleshy face, squinted in concentration. He had, at all times, well–regarded local figures at his side—the magistrate, a wealthy merchant, local village representatives—who nodded or gently disagreed, often to be chided into silence by my father.
“Valiant,” he said, scornfully shifting in his armchair. “That means they lost.”
My oldest brother, Kazuo, his appearance and intellect so fortunately for him like my father’s, smirked from the floor at my father’s side, where he knelt and neatly copied columns of kanji onto sheets of rice paper. Kazuo’s handwriting was much better than mine and had been even when he was younger than me, a fact that my mother was at all times eager to impress upon me.
. . . brave sacrifice at Guadalcanal . . .
“Hm!” my father exclaimed, taking his cigarette out of his mouth. “Getting slaughtered. The Americans shall attack us next.”
By the time we were advised to evacuate Taoyuan, my parents had already made inquiries into a house north of Taipei, near the farm where my mother was raised. It was in the same region where the actual Japanese were being sent, and my father therefore felt that it would be the safest. The house was large enough to accommodate my siblings and me, and all our preparations seemed to be in order. Then the owner of the country house changed his mind, saying that it was insulting to be offered such a low rent by such a wealthy family; he had made inquiries of his own about my parents and was not about to be taken for a fool.
The negotiations continued long after many of my classmates’ families had left Taoyuan for country houses of their own or to share. And so it was that I was still at school in Taoyuan the day of the air raid.
I was, as usual, looking out the window, ignoring the teacher’s lecture and the slow, constant burn of hunger in my belly. I wasn’t a top student like Kazuo, nor did I have a mind only for sports, like my second brother, Jiro. I was Saburo, the third son, and I recognized that I was different, somehow, from my brothers. I was different from these children all around me in their neat rows, filing their kanji into little boxes, contentedly reciting their arithmetic facts by rote. It was far more interesting to me, despite the real and ever—present threat of being struck by my teacher, to study the sky outside. I loved the sky, its boundless, lovely blue, the translucent ruffled pattern of clouds stretching across it. I watched the clouds drift ever so slowly north. And then I saw three tiny spots moving toward us beyond.
I jumped up. “Look!” I cried.
My teacher reached for her stick to strike me, but at the same time the air–raid siren went off. The class erupted in cries of alarm and we hurried to our places in line. It wasn’t the first air raid, and we all knew what to do. Some Japanese bureaucrat had decided that the best thing for a schoolchild to do when the town was being strafed was to run home.
The siren wailed overhead, and my schoolmates ran out into the street, holding their writing boards over their heads. In previous air raids I had done the same, but today I had seen the planes myself and could hear the bombs and machine–gun fire quite close by. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the shelter of the school. Heart thumping, I hung back in the doorway, but after all the children had left, the principal followed and locked the door behind her, shouting at me to leave.
I ran to the woods at the back of the school and made my way along a path through them. My heart hammered, but I was in no rush either to leave the cover of the trees or to get home. As shells exploded on our railroad tracks and bullets sprayed the roofs of our houses and schools, I made my way from tree to tree, calming myself with the smell of the damp earth and the moss, and the occasional scent of blossoms from peach trees, now scarce but once so pervasive that they had given the county its name, Taoyuan—“peach garden.”
And then I heard the distinct cry of a young girl.
I ran toward the sound and found one girl helping another one up. They both looked about eight, like me, with matching school uniforms and the short, severe haircuts required by the Japanese school system. The one who had fallen—the one who had cried out—looked down at her bleeding knee. The other one bent over her, looking at her friend’s wound. They both held their writing boards over their heads, as we had been taught to do during air raids.
“Are you okay?” I shouted.
They jumped and looked up at me in surprise. They were both very pretty and sweet looking in the dappled light, with wide, sparkling eyes, and they instinctively leaned their heads together.
“Are you okay?” I repeated more quietly as I drew near. “I heard someone cry.”
“I’m all right,” the girl with the bleeding knee said quietly. She blinked and looked down at her knee, her lower lip stuck out just a little. “I tripped over a tree root.”
A plane roared overhead and fresh rounds of machine–gun fire burst out, so that the girls clung to each other.
“See you tomorrow!” the bleeding girl said. She took off into the woods.
“Aren’t you going home with your sister?” I said to the other girl, who stood, watching the bleeding girl run away.
She shook her head and pointed, still holding her writing board on her head. “She’s not my sister. She’s my cousin. I’m going this way.”
She began to run, and I ran with her, even though she was headed away from my parents’ house. The planes were not directly over our heads, but we could hear them and their fire very well.
She glanced at me past her elbow, sections of her hair swinging over her pale face. “Why don’t you hold your board over your head?” she said. Then she tripped over a rock and almost fell.
I jumped to catch her arm. “Because it doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “See? You can’t even run that way.”
She straightened up, board in place. “But that’s what my teacher says we should do in an air raid.”
“I’ve seen bullets go through ceilings and walls,” I said. “What good is a writing board going to do?”
“Maybe it would slow the bullet down.” She continued on, walking this time, switching to hold her board with her other hand. “My teacher’s really nice. She brings me moachi. You see how hard the board is? It will protect me.”
“She brings you moachi?” The very thought that a teacher could be called “nice,” much less be a source of sweet treats, was completely alien to me.
“Yes, because I’m number one in the class!” She spoke proudly. “My father brings me moachi, too, when I study. He brings the ones from Japan because they’re better.”
“I don’t think they’re better,” I said, hungry at the thought of the gooey rice cakes. “I like the peanut ones the best.”
“Well, that’s true,” she said. “Those are the best.”
We reached the edge of the forest. There was a store–lined road a few hundred yards away across a clearing, and we stopped.
“Let’s wait,” I said. “The all–clear siren hasn’t gone off.”
“But I’m supposed to go home.”
“It’s safer to stay here.”
“My parents will worry about me.”
I listened for a moment, hearing only the leaves rustling overhead and the rushing of my pulse.
“They’ve gone away,” the girl said.
“Hou,” I said. “Quickly.”
We ran into the open field. Just as we reached the middle, a plane zoomed in from behind us. I jumped in terror, and the girl screamed, holding her writing board over her head with both hands. We had all heard of Americans shooting farmers in the field, of mowing down women carrying babies and market goods on their bicycles.
But when I looked up, I saw the Japanese flag painted on the fuselage. “It’s all right,” I shouted with relief. “He’s defending us.”
We stopped in the middle of the field at the awesome sight of the two planes dueling, swooping and firing and curving away over the heart of our town.
“Did you see that?”
“He got him, I think!”
And then one of the planes was trailing smoke out its side, and it swooped too low. We felt the crash through the ground with our feet.
When the other plane rose, we saw, on its side, the American flag.
“Oh no!” the girl cried as she broke into a run.
Terrified, I ran after her and then looked back. I stopped, seeing the plane head away toward the forest.
But then the plane banked, straightened out, and pointed its nose toward us, the pilot aiming his gun at my chest.
My breath stopped. The plane’s nose drew near, larger and larger. Everything became clear at once: This man would shoot us down like game. I would die in this field with this strange girl whose name I did not even know. My parents, who had never celebrated my birthday, would mourn my death with a procession, flowers, and incense. I would die hungry.
From a distance I heard the girl’s voice. She was screaming.
“Run!” she screamed. “What are you doing?”
I woke from my trance and ran after her. She was smaller and slower than me, even more so holding her board over her head, and in my terror at hearing the plane’s engine roaring at our backs, I overtook her easily.
I reached the street and heard her fall behind me. I turned to see her scrambling to get up, still holding the writing board over her head, her eyes large with panic. Bullets started to hit the field. I ran back and grabbed her arm, soft under my grip. I saw the dust rise from the grass behind her as I pulled her, all my muscles straining, and the sound of bullets exploded in my ears and in my chest. I yelled, barely hearing my own voice over the gunfire, not sure whether I was being shot. I pulled her across the last bit of field and through the broken door of a hardware shop. We clung together, shaking, in the corner of the shop while bullets hit the ceiling of the store.
Finally the shooting stopped and the plane buzzed away.
We jumped apart. I looked down. My whole body trembled and my heart pounded furiously. I was dirty, but there was no blood on me.
The girl held up her writing board. Its handle had been shot off.
“You see? It did protect me!”
I looked at the frayed rope and said nothing.
Reprinted from The Third Son with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2013 by Julie Wu.