Zero Ground by Matt McHugh
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Stand in Peace Memorial Park, at the confluence of the Honkowa and Motoyasu Rivers, and one indeed may feel, at least for a fleeting moment, peace. From a strip of land in the midst of the Broad Island, surrounded by the orderly chaos of a well-planned metropolis, with all the comforts and distractions of the modern era, one may look upon Hiroshima City and be forgiven for thinking it represents the best of civilization. But, of course, it is only a momentary glimpse of the vast coiled serpent that is the history of this world, a single shiny scale newly grown over a wound from a flaming arrow.
All around are monuments, artifacts that invite resident and tourist alike to “remember.” The Peace Flame. The Peace Bell. The Cenotaph. The Memorial Mound. The Memorial Tower. And, of course, the scarred ruins and charred ribs of what is officially known as Hiroshima Heiwa Kinenhi—the Hiroshima Peace Memorial—but more commonly as the Genbaku Dome… or perhaps more honestly, the A-Bomb Dome. I hear many marvel that—battered and crumbling, though it may be—it still stands. It is, it seems, a symbol. Of what, I am uncertain.
Do you wish to see my memorial? You may. It is on exhibit in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, transplanted and preserved, sheltered from natural elements and sweeping reconstruction. There, on the steps, am I. Hitokage no ishi. Human shadow etched in stone.
No one knows who I was. In many ways, I am grateful for that. Put simply, I was a man. Not a particularly good one, truth be told. I was often harsh to my wife, impatient with my children. My coworkers—fellow conscripts, transported to labor at the docks and factories—I sometimes cheated for scraps of the diminishing rations. A flawed and frequently selfish thing—by no means a monster—yet my many minor sins monstrous in that, like grains of sand, inconsequential individually, when poured with the tides of humanity onto the balance scales only add to the weight of our aggregate evils. People stop and stare at the vague shape left by my body shielding a swath of wall from a flash of heat, and they mutter of the tragedy, of the horror… and then they move on. Oh, that I could.
It is a myth that we, the shadows of Hiroshima, were “vaporized.” We were burned—often instant and insensate—but our corpses remained, at least for a moment, until the shockwave blasted them into shards. Mercifully, I have no memory of this. I learned it, like each passing tour group, from the guides and plaques. My first recollection of my current existence is of waking, slowly and with the confusion of a revived drunkard, and gradually coming to understand that I was beyond redemption. I can’t return the morsels I filched from friends. I can’t tell those I loved that, despite my flights of mean-spiritedness, I did truly love them. I can no longer hope to make amends. Like my flash-burned shade, I am forever fixed as what I once was. Immortal and immutable—the great dream of all born to die!—though I would certainly tell you, had I the power, it is not a condition to envy.
Throughout my life, I was plagued by the question: Where do I belong? I was always restless, what I had never enough, and always certain something better was just outside my grasp if I only could summon the will to reach for it. This is, of course, our downfall. Yours and mine, children and nations, every restless soul driven by the nagging sense of want, vague as the wind and relentless as the sea. Desire. The root of all suffering.
Empires dissatisfied with their borders. Monarchs haunted by that fear that their greatness falls short of their potential. Every man and woman who—rightly or wrongly—believes themselves ill-used or under-appreciated and nurses resentment until it leads to action or inaction, either path as likely to circle back to the starting point of frustrated desire. I know many, or rather I remember once knowing many, who would call me a pessimist, a cynic. I won’t deny the label, nor will I defend it. What has caused, is causing, and shall ever cause me pain is wishing to be other than what I am. When I was alive, that wish was my choice. In my current state, it is my nature.
Hiroshima. City of Peace. Metropolis of modern efficiency and pristine memorials. It is so only because its history was ended and reset, its festering clots of human folly wiped away, and those spared were frightened enough to run to the arms of their better angels. But it will not last. It cannot. This moment is a pinprick in the ceaseless scroll of time and will soon enough loop back to the petty squabbles that give birth to inevitable atrocity. It must, because people of short lives and shorter memory are writing the story. This is not a place of remembrance, not a city of peace. It is a token offering to indifferent gods, a desperate plea, a vain promise, that we—or rather, you—are capable of learning from the past. This is a monument to the agony of desire.
If you come to me for wisdom, know that I have none to offer. I am merely a shadow of a man, bitter and resentful, now and forever, for what I have done and what was done to me. But from whatever wisp of my soul that endures, whatever phantom compassion that still afflicts me, I offer you this wish:
May you be spared my fate.
Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Website: mattmchugh.com
Published to the Kaidankai on March 16, 2022.
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.