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NEW BRITAIN, 1942
"... SOON THE 'IWA BIRD WILL FLY. HUGE MAMMAL WAVES WILL breach and boom. It will be Makahiki time. Autumn in my islands ..."
She sits up quickly in the dark, taking her body by surprise. Her fingers roam her face, a face once nearly flawless. She drags her knuckles down her cheeks.
Outside, electrified barbed wire hums. She feels such wrenching thirst, she sucks sweat coursing down her arm. Then carefully she rises, gliding like algae through humid air. She listens for the sea. For that is what she longs forwaves cataracting, corroding her to crystals. From somewhere, gurgling latrines. Even their sound is comforting.
A kerosene lamp is steered into the dark. Sunny watches as dreamily it floats, comes down. A soldier's hand, the hand of memory, places it on the floor, revealing a yeasty, torn mosquito net. Inside, a young girl on a narrow bed, so still she could be dead.
In watchtowers surrounding the women's compoundtwenty Quonset huts, within each, forty womenguards yawn and stroke their rifles. One of them half dozes, dreamily composing an impeccable letter to his family in Osaka. "Mother, we are winning.... The Imperial Japanese Army will prevail!" He is growing thin.
In one hut a young girl, Kim, pulls her net aside. Burning with pain, she crawls into Sunny's narrow bed, into her arms, and sobs.
Sunny calms her, whispering, "Yes, cry a little, it will help you sleep."
"It's hardest when the sky turns light. I think of my family who I will never see again. I want to run outside, throw myself against the fence." Sunny sighs, breathes in the smell of sewage, failing flesh. "Kim, be strong. Think of music, think of booksnormal things we took for granted."
"I don't remember normal things." Kim scratches at her sordid legs, a girl of sixteen. "I don't remember life.
" Sunny shakes her gently, feeling mostly bone. "Listen now. When the whistle blows for mustering, we'll stand up straight, eat whatever scraps they throw. No matter how filthy the water, we'll drink. With what is left we'll bathe. We'll do this for our bodies, so our bodies will know we still have hope for a future."
"What future?" Kim whispers. "Two years of this. I only want to die."
"Hush, and listen. Death would be too easy, don't you see?" Sunny sighs, begins to drift. "... In Paris now it would be cool. We would stroll the boulevards." Her voice turns dreamy. "We might even take a cab."
Kim looks up, asking softly, "Will the drivers be rude again?"
"Oh, yes. And my French is so bad. Maybe this night we would go to Chez L'Ami Louis."
"Oh! The food is rich, so excellent." Kim momentarily comes alive, for this is her favorite game. Imagining.
"What wine shall we order? The house Fleurie?"
"And paté. And oysters! Will you dip mine in horseradish, Sunny?"
"Of course. And I will scold you when you pocket the matches, such a tourist thing."
Her voice softens. She thinks of Keo, their time in Paris. Rocking in lush geometries of morning light, nothing between them but heartbeats. Then spinning under marble arches, through terraced parks, young and careless and exiled. Not seeing Paris collapsing around them, not seeing their lives were crumbling.
"How happy we were. Grabbing each moment, so alive."
"I have no such memories," Kim weeps. "I never shall."
"Of course you will! One day this will end. You will heal. Life will help you to forget."
"... Yes. Maybe life is waiting in Paris. Beauty and adventure. And shall we walk this evening down the Champs Elysées? Shop for the softest kid gloves? And cologne? Or maybe take a café and wait for Keo. I'll close my eyes, pretend I'm there, just looking on."
"Shh," Sunny whispers. "Soon it will be daylight. If they find us together, they'll beat us again."
She feels tears come: hunger, torture, incessant pain, the knowledge that she and this girlall of themare dying.
"Don't think so much. It will consume you. You will never survive."
"Survive. For what?" Kim's voice grows loud; girls sit up listening behind their nets. "You talk of life. How can we face life after this? How can we face ourselves?"
Sunny's voice turns urgent. "We must live. Or what have we suffered for? Will these years have been for nothing?
" Under her pillow is a makeshift map, drawn so she can remember where they are, where they were shipped to months ago. Here is the town of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, east of Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia. Here is the Pacific Ocean and, far to the northeast, Hawai'i. Honolulu, home. Farther out is the world, the great oceans. Far across the Atlantic, there is Paris. Yesterday. But, always, her mind snaps back to Rabaul.
Exhausted, weak beyond knowing, Kim sinks back on the filthy mattress, stale grains of rice matting her hair. "I want to sleep, I want to dream. Oh, take me back to Paris, shops, cabarets. Tell me again how you and Keo rode in a car with the top down....
" Paris, Sunny thinks. We were so innocent. Not understanding trains were already leaving stations, streets were darkening with blood. She sighs, begins again, dreamily, and as she talks, girls struggle from their beds, move down the aisle, brushing her mosquito net. Some so thin, their movements seem delicate, some so young they are children, ghosts weaving through a scrim. Wanting only to listen and dream, they sit with arms entwined, heads bowed against each other.