With a ruffling of chalky feathers, the owl alights on a broken arch, and watches as the man climbs the mountain of rubble. He grips at pitted creases in the rock, pulling himself forwards and upwards, his muscles quivering with the sustained effort. Sweat soaks through on his back and under his arms, but his limbs do not give, and his nerve does not falter.
Whatever the rock used to be, precisely, is beyond the recognition of owl or man. The surface the man climbs is charred and melted, and coated black with a shroud of soot. Vague shapes are outlined in the shadows, overlaying any details that might once have been beneath. Bits of jagged metal poke out here and there, like sharpened nubs of bone in a dusty graveyard.
His hands bleed from the roughness of the handholds, torn skin perforating his knuckles, but that will not be why he dies. Nor will he die from the lack of water he carries, or from the silent heat of the midday sun that beats down on his back.
He is already dead, she fears.
The owl swoops down from her perch. She lands at the top of the pile and looks down at the man. He has encountered a dense cluster of stone – a pillar, broken and fragmented, has come down to rest at that spot. It was a grand pillar, in some not-too-distant past. A few flakes of white and gold mark the burnt-off remains of painted friezes and ornate inlays.
He leans to his right, and then to his left, but neither path is easier. Monstrous shards of stone block his way. He begins testing their balance.
“Hiro. Please don’t do this. It is not too late for you.”
“It is not too late for them, either,” says the man. He grunts loudly as he pulls at the blocks of marble and twisted steel girders, straining heavily against their unwilling inertia. He manages to tip them, just enough, and they fall past him, clattering down the broken slope. Clouds of dust mark their passage.
“It is, Hiro. It was too late a week ago. It is too late now.”
The man pulls himself up a particularly large block of stone and pauses for a moment, breathing heavily. “Do you know that, Kikue?”
“Nothing could have lived. We felt it, even from so far away.”
He continues to climb. His gaze sweeps past the owl, but his eyes are as dead as he, and he keeps moving, one hand after the other. “You cannot know that.”
“Hiro, please. I know it to be true. As do you.”
“I do not.”
How does one talk life into to a dead man? The owl swivels her head, as if searching for an answer, but none comes. For years, she has with him – his companion, his guide, his infallible sensei – but today the sky is torn with blood and the spirit wind does not come. She is as helpless as the day she was spawned.
“I cannot let you do this, Hiro.”
“You must, dear Kikue,” he says. “I release you. Go, fly among the stars, and find another to watch over.”
“It is my solemn duty to watch over no one but you. From the day the kami sent me to your ancestors, until the day they call me back, I am bound to serve the firstborn of each generation as spirit guide; to teach them and watch them and preserve them with all of my power.”
The owl looks straight at him, her eyes glinting, and his gaze finally catches hers. “And I tell you now with all the love that I have for you and your line: dear Hiro, turn back now, for soon it will be too late for you as well.”
“Then you will perish.”
“And then I will be with my family at last.”
And Hiro reaches the top at last. He stands tall among the devastation and surveys his surroundings. Around him, there are hundreds – thousands – more piles of wreckage. Some are tall, some are short, some blend together to form shapeless grey ridges of rock and metal. Here and there, the skeletal facade of a building stands; guilty survivors amongst the piles of their fallen brethren.
The same view that he has seen from a hundred peaks before. The same view that he will see for a hundred peaks more, until they reach the street that was once his home.
And for the first time since she flew down to the mortal plane, Kikue curses the kami for not making her an eagle, or a dragon. For perhaps then she could have swooped upon the fell bird that flew across the sea, over Kochi, over Ehime, over the inland sea, and caught it and ripped it and torn it to shreds before it laid its egg over Hiroshima.
// AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit at /r/WritingPrompts by an unknown user. The prompt is: You must enter the highly radioactive area to save yourself and your family. Only problem is, the Owl won’t let you.