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A CUBE OF SUGAR

Eduard was playing the piano as he usually did after dinner, when Cook-san ran into the sitting room.

"Turn on radio, Mama-san. Emperor speaks. War over."

Of course we all knew that it couldn't go on much longer. Food supplies had long since given out. The American bombers came over the hilltop each night and dropped endless loads of bombs on Kobe. We had heard of even worse destruction elsewhere, but we didn't actually learn the horrible extent of it for months. To those Japanese who knew first hand what happened, it was too horrible to express in words. The government was not anxious to spread fear, and the rumor mill was strangely quiet.

After the Germans surrendered in Europe, the position of all the German consular and trade personnel had become very tenuous. The Japanese felt betrayed. Eduard's consular status had protected us during the war, but now there were rumors circulating in the foreign residence district that the Japanese government planned to take us by train up to the frozen northland and drop us off on some remote island, without food or shelter, to die of exposure. Supposedly, the cars were waiting in the station for us already. I don't know if this was true. Strange things happen in war.

I ran to the radio and switched it on. Robin and Susanna ran in from the nursery and clung to my knees. Eduard stopped playing the piano. His eyes registered his concern. They might be announcing our imminent departure or worse. Anything might happen.

A thin, wispy voice emerged as the radio warmed up. It seemed as insubstantial as the flickering light that came up behind the opaque dial with all its national and international radio numbers. A high pitched sing-song voice floated out of the tiny speakers into our living room like a trail of thin smoke or a single strand of cobweb waving listlessly in the air currents caused by the heated vacuum tubes.

"The emperor, his voice," Cook-san said folding her hands and bowing excessively as she backed out of our presence. No one had ever had the privilege of hearing the Emperor's voice outside of his Palace. Only the Japanese nobility were allowed to associate with the Emperor, and many of them had never heard him speak. Hearing his voice for the very first time, common people felt a natural sense of awe, but they did not know how to act in his radio presence. Evidently bowing was the only thing they could think to do that might be appropriate. They all did it, I found out later from my friends.

We listened very carefully to his voice. Our lives might hang on his words. He spoke in an ancient form of Japanese only used inside the Palace grounds. It was unintelligible to us. My tin ear only picked up a certain amount of Japanese at best, but even Eduard was puzzled by this antique language.

"Cook-san," I called out sharply to her shadow just as it disappeared around the corner into the kitchen. "Tell us what he is saying. Translate for us, please. We do not understand." Cook-san returned still bowing and still with her hands folded in front of her chest. She cocked her head as he spoke. She squinted slightly. She was trying very hard.

"I cannot tell, Mama-san," answered Cook-san. "His words are sacred, and so it is natural that we not understand them." I looked at Eduard. He shrugged his shoulders. We both looked at Cook-san. To judge by her expression this was a completely adequate explanation. She smiled her usual smile and hurried out into the kitchen where she could huddle with the other servants and not miss a word.

Cook-san's parting glance told me that my demand for meaning in the Emperor's speech seemed to her crass and unworthy of the moment. She was glad to retreat. When I listened again, I had to agree that it was therapeutic to hear the Emperor's steady voice at this time of crisis. It had a calming effect. There was great dignity in it. How did he manage to put so much pride into simple words? Yet a clear sense of honor and moment floated on this ethereal cloud of sound.

Listening to his voice, it did not matter who won or who lost the war. It only seemed to matter that we lived in a nation with an Emperor who could speak with such authority. How could anything important go wrong? No Japanese Emperor had ever announced the defeat of his nation to his people before. There were no protocols to follow. If such a thing must be done, it is best done with dignity and serenity. Even if no one understands the words, the message is conveyed, while avoiding any petty fighting over terminology.

After it was all over, Eduard said, "I need to go downtown for a while. I'll be back as soon as I can find out what is happening." He put on his hat and coat, the same hat and coat he wore on the boat we boarded in San Francisco just before the war was declared. Ours had been a torrid romance. He was an exchange student and I his English tutor. My mother warned me about the dangers of going out with a German, but there's no explaining or avoiding love.

When we first arrived in Japan, we were welcomed into the trade delegation with open arms. Those were the days when we still pretended to have a country club and a tennis club, though they had no food and less and less liquor as the war deepened. After a while there weren't even any valuables left in the club to bribe the band into playing, and soon the colored water in the liquor bottles began to mold over and the party was over. The croquet balls and mallets were neatly packed away in rice paper. The nets were taken down and the clubs were closed — forever, as it turned out. Eduard had a car and a driver then, but the car was lost when our first house was bombed. The driver had to be let go. I was very sorry to do it. We were the only source of food for him and his family, but there was no point in feeding a driver with the car out of commission.

Eduard returned late with news. The war was over. The Emperor had given his speech, the text of which was published in the newspaper in normal Japanese, not that it mattered much. Basically, he said that he would always be their emperor, which wasn't true, and they would always be proud and free, which was very soon not true either. True to Cook-san's report, the importance of the Emperor's speech had nothing whatever to do with the words.

It was a time of great uncertainty. No one knew what would happen next. Would the Americans drop more bombs to neutralize any resistance, or would they come in with an invading army, guns blazing? Hoping to learn something, one day Eduard and Robin climbed up the hillside behind our house to watch the city of Kobe explode and burn as the bombs destroyed it block by block. I stayed down below working in the garden. As I listened to the bombs going off in the distance, I heard a cry of delight or alarm, I couldn't tell which, from the behind me.

Cook-san stood in the clearing at the far end of the garden, near the root-cellar we used when the bombs came too near. I saw her with one hand over her eyebrows. No Japanese planes had been in the air for weeks. I ran up to the clearing, stood behind her, and saw what she saw in the sky, a shining shaft of polished aluminum reflecting the sun. It shone like a piece of sculpture as it swooped down on the town. It seemed to hover on a whisper.

"It's so fine," Cook-san said softly. I never got used to the Japanese sense of beauty. It did not matter if this plane was delivering bombs, troops, or food. She had no control over these life-and-death matters. There was no sense in having the beauty of the moment disturbed by anxiety for what the future might bring.

"Kirei des ne," Cook-san whispered, pointing into the sky. "It is beautiful, isn't it?" she repeated, holding out her hand to it as if bidding this silver bird to light on her outstretched finger. It turned out that the planes that came that day and for many days to come were loaded with troops and supplies. Soon American servicemen in Jeeps were everywhere. They wore sidearms and carried rifles in the jump seat. When they learned that an American family was living up in the hills, they came to visit. They wanted to talk with Eduard, play with the children, and learn about local conditions.

It was hard to know what terrible circumstances these men endured before driving up into our barren yard in their Jeeps. Iwo Jima, the Solomon Islands, and the battles for the other Pacific islands had all been theirs to fight. They all wore brave faces and did not speak of their inner suffering. Many of them showed me pictures of their children at home. They played catch with Robin and bounced Susanna on their knees. For a few moments, they seemed happy, but perhaps a little sad at the same time.

One evening after dinner, a lieutenant who had come home with Eduard gave Susanna a single cube of sugar.

"Ohhhhh!" she exclaimed. "Mama look!" She cried out in utter delight holding the cube above her head where I could see it plainly. "Isn't it wonderful!" The soldier was amused. He could not have known that we had not seen actual sugar for several years. Even the beet substitutes gave out months ago. Here it was, a perfect square of crystalline hope, a hallmark of our pasts, and a reminder of what we wished would be ours again soon.

It was Christmas time, and Susanna, who had received almost no presents but desperately wanted some, ran to her room and returned some minutes later with the cube all wrapped in rice paper and tied with an impossibly tiny string. The bow could only have been formed by a child's fingers. We all laughed. She put her miniature present in the middle of the table, and we all laughed a great deal more.

The next day, Susanna accompanied me on my usual rounds to barter for food. Everything was harder than ever with the coming of the end of the war. Susanna naturally brought along her diminutive gift, and showed it off as we went along. When we reached the home of her best friend, Greta, Susanna retrieved the tiny package from her pocket and placed it reverently in her friend's open palm.

When Greta opened the gift, she couldn't believe her eyes. "Oh Susanna," Greta cried, "you shouldn't give this marvelous thing to me. It's the most wonderful thing you own." Susanna, just looked at her friend with bemusement.

"I know," she replied simply.

Greta was ecstatic to think that she owned such a wonder. It gleamed in the mid-day sunlight, just like the airplane Cook-san had pointed out days before. It seemed like pure magic, the narrow end of the wedge.

That Christmas there were very few presents and a great deal more gossip than usual, so everyone had only Season's Greetings to pass around. Eduard's knowledge of English and Japanese came in handy. He worked closely with the United States Air Force and translated documents and memos from civil and ex-military authorities. He began using his engineering skills to help set up regional refrigeration units to store perishable supplies both for the occupation army and for the indigenous population that was on the brink of starvation.

Several days after we had visited Greta, the same officer who visited us made a stop at her house. This time he bore chocolate candy bars. These were a treasure almost beyond imagination. The children held them in their hot hands without knowing what to do with them.

"Go ahead," the officer urged. "You can eat them. I have a whole box of them in the Jeep." The children eagerly tore into these magical gifts, caressing the delicious chocolate with their avid little tongues, while the eyes of all the adults instantly refocused on the box in the Jeep. Obviously, the officer was heedless of the fortune he possessed so casually. On the black market, a family could live for several months on the remaining contents of that box. But how was the officer to know that? He came to us from a different world.

Greta was so amazed at the soldier's generosity that she ran into her house, pulled a dining room chair up to the mantle where she stored the sugar cube, and retrieved it. Eagerly, she ran back out into the yard and got the soldier's attention. Kneeling down, he saw what she offered him, the most valuable thing she owned, a cube of sugar. He smiled and took it from her gratefully. She smiled and gave him a big chocolatety kiss on the cheek.

It's hard to say how soldiers feel about things. They are trained to hold everything within themselves, but this soldier seemed somewhat choked up. He walked directly to his Jeep and made a hurried departure. I don't know what happened to the cube of sugar. Did he pop it in his mouth? Maybe he threw it into the woods. It probably was a bit soiled by then. I suppose it doesn't really matter.

After a few months, we got word that the Air Force had arranged with the Navy to take us back to San Francisco aboard an empty cargo freighter. It was all painted military gray and looked as dismal on the outside as it was austere on the inside, but we were very happy to go aboard.

We had long farewell dinners with each of our friends. "Stay in touch," they cried out as we departed. "We'll never forget you," we cried back.

      — Gary Lehmann