Steve made his way through the party to a hallway at the back of the room, picking up two small candle lanterns from the floor and handing one to Tess. “Watch your step.” Steve held his low to illuminate the way.
At the end of the hall Steve opened the door there and went in ahead to light more candles. The room a veritable museum of war memorabilia, replete with artifacts, beautifully displayed in glass cases, cabinets, and on shelves around the room. When Tess had suggested that Fuller should meet Steve she had described his collection in some detail, but her account had not done it justice. Fuller made his way slowly, taking it all in. There were helmets, bayonets, an assortment of pistols, a gun case holding three rifles neatly in a row, canteens, numerous personal effects and photographs, wristwatches, money, bottles and eating utensils. A stained and tattered Japanese flag, covered in hand-written messages in black ink and framed in glass hung on the wall. Beneath it was an elegant tall display cabinet made of finished wood with polished brass fixtures; on top was an empty sword stand.
In the middle of the room stood a low, round tatami table, encircled with decorative pillows and cushions. There was a desk under the window; Tony was already seated behind it with his feet up, drinking a beer.
“Come in. Mi casa su casa.” Steve stood beside the flag on the wall, extending his hands in welcome. “What do you think?”
Fuller nodded in appreciation and turned his attention to the flag on the wall.
“Beautiful, right? Steve moved in closer, smiling. “The jewel of my collection. My pride and joy. This is called a ‘hinomaru yosegaki’. Have you heard of that? No? It means ‘good luck flag’. When a soldier shipped out, his family and friends sent him off with one of these. Everyone would sign it to wish him success on the battlefield. Didn’t help this guy much.” Steve pointed out the cluster of dark blotches splattered across the bottom.
“It’s not in the best shape, obviously, but the fact that it survived at all and for this long is a miracle. I found it in a cave up north, pretty deep, which I guess is what preserved it. I was alone that day.”
“Which was not a smart move.” Tony interrupted.
“True. But in my defense it was an unplanned excursion. Pure serendipity. Wasn’t even meant to be in that area, but I got called up there to meet a client and got lost on a back road trying to find the place. Normally I would take Middle Road up, but I was already on that side of the island so I tried to wing it, and failed. So I’m lost and trying to find my way back out to a main road and having a hard time. And now I need to piss and it’s becoming urgent. So I pull over on this small dirt road. There’s tall grass on both sides. And I’m there on the side of the road pissing, and a breeze blows through and the grass sways like a big wave, and I catch a glimpse of a rocky outcropping out there, just for a second. Nothing particularly special about it, but I decide to check it out. So I get my machete and pack out of the back and start in. It was only about fifty yards off the road, so not far at all.
“I get there and it’s just this big jagged cluster of rock coming out of the ground at the base of a small hill. I walk around the left of it, up the side and over the top, but nothing to see. So I figure I’ll head back to the car and move on. Then, climbing down – and when I say ‘climbing’ I mean ‘walking’, it’s a small hill – coming down the other side I spot a gap under the rock. I get closer to check it out and it goes in pretty far from what I can see. I get the flashlight out and shine it inside, and it goes way back, and turns. And the gap is plenty big enough to climb through, so I do. I gotta check this out. And it turns out to be a proper cave. I’m on my hands and knees for a few feet, and then it turns right and opens up and starts getting deeper. And it’s a comfortable space. Not cramped at all. For a Jap soldier it’s perfect. He was psyched to find that spot.
“So I keep going another ten minutes or so. At this point I’m starting to think this isn’t smart. I don’t want some dude finding me down here in sixty years. But I tell myself ‘just a few more feet and turn back’. So I keep going. And I shine my light ahead, just to see. And there it was, folded on the floor under a bit of dirt. Not buried or anything. Just sitting there. Strange thing is there was nothing else down there. Literally nothing.”
Steve paused a moment, reflecting. “What I wouldn’t give to know the story of how it got there. Think about all of the stories buried out there.” He waved a hand outward. “Every one of them would make an amazing book. The story of how this flag got from Japan to this wall. The story of the guy who left it in that cave. That’s a book. What happened to him? I would love to read that fucking book. Think about how many books are out there that will never be written.” He paused, smiling at the two. “That keeps me awake at night.”
“Hey. Check this out.” They followed as Steve moved to the gun cabinet containing the rifles. “These I found together, all leaning against the wall in another cave. Remember that day, Tony?”
Tony looked up from the magazine he had been thumbing through, “Yeah. That was out by Kalabera.” He swung his feet off the desk and leaned forward. “That was a great fucking day. That was the day Tom blew a flat on his truck and we were stuck for a couple hours while he fixed it. Remember? We left him there with Ed and went walking. That’s when we found those. Tom was fucking pissed we left him. We were lucky he waited for us.”
“That’s right!” Steve wagged a finger at Tony. “That is exactly right. Good memory, my man.”
Tony winked and put his feet back up and continued looking through the magazine. Steve went on.
“These are all Japanese, of course. All Type 99 Arisakas. Standard issue rifle of the Japanese army.” Steve leaned in, tapping on the glass, inviting Fuller to take a closer look. “Check it out. That’s the Chrysanthemum Seal of the Emperor of Japan. Perfect condition. When Americans captured these they usually filed it off. These are primo. How cool is that?”
“Still no American stuff?.” Tess motioned around the room.
Steve sat on the corner of the desk and opened a beer from the bucket in front of Tony.
“Not yet”, he sighed. “Not much of it out there, unfortunately. Lots of UXO. Shells, grenades and whatnot; the occasional tank or plane. Stuff you can’t take. The Americans weren’t hiding in caves. We were doing the attacking, so our guys weren’t living here. Weren’t dug in here.”
Tony cut in, “Both sides lost a lot of people, but it’s pretty much all Japanese stuff out there. And this island is covered with it. You’re pretty much always guaranteed to find something on a stomp.”
“Dave’s right though”, Steve continued. “Most of the time it’s junk: pieces of uniforms, corroded ration cans, broken sake bottles.
“But every once in a while you strike gold.” Steve paused a moment, looking at Tess, then Fuller. A smile came over his face. “I want to show you something special. A recent addition.”
Steve motioned to the tatami table. “Take a seat. I’ll get it. You too, Tony.”
On the far side of the room was a tall antique cabinet. Steve knelt down to open the lower set of doors and lifted a candle to look inside, then slowly pulled out an ornately-carved wooden box. He stood, walked back to the table and sat on the floor opposite the three, placing the box in his lap and resting both hands flat on top of it. He paused momentarily to bask in the anticipation of his reveal.
Steve lifted the top off of the box and laid it on the floor beside him. Reaching in carefully with both hands he removed a human skull, positioning it on the table facing his guests; he reached in again and produced another which he placed beside the first. Both were badly damaged and without mandibles, balancing upright on a few teeth that remained embedded in the upper jaw. Steve removed the box from his lap and leaned forward taking a joint from a patinaed silver case and lighting it, drawing deeply; his face glowed briefly in the ember light.
“I’d like to introduce you to my new friends”, he said, gently patting the top of the one on his left, then the other. “This is Yoshi … and this, is Kenji.”
He picked up the skull he had named Yoshi, cradling and turning it in his fingers, admiring it. The bone had been cleaned and appeared to have a slight sheen to it, as if a coat of wax had been applied. It had a bullet hole in the back. He took another extended pull, holding the smoke in for a moment, then pressed his lips against the back of the skull and exhaled through Yoshi’s bullet hole; the smoke oozed out through the cracks and holes. He turned it so that he was now looking Yoshi in the face. “There you go, pal”, he whispered. “A friend always shares his weed.” Steve smiled and set Yoshi gently back on the table beside Kenji, then took another long drag and blew a perfect smoke ring into the air.
“Holy shit, dude. Where did these come from?” Tony grabbed Yoshi from the table, examining the bullet hole.
Tess sat back, glaring, pointing at Tony. “Jesus, Steve. You know this is illegal? Not to mention really fucked up. You need to turn these over to someone. Whoever handles shit like this.”
Steve chuckled, leaning back on one arm and pointing back at Tess. “To who? Do you …”
“Looks like it exited through the back. See how there are pieces coming off the back here?” Tony turned Yoshi around and pointed to show Steve. “And this is toast. He must have taken it right through the eye.” Tony poked a finger through an eye socket, attempting to map the trajectory of the projectile that had killed Yoshi.
Steve abandoned his defense, turning back to Tony, “Or up through the throat. I had the same thought.”
“True. Good call.” Tony continued his examination.
Babs opened the door, knocking lightly as she did. “Hey guys. Tom’s asking when you’re coming back. He and Dave are about to sing. You gonna be long? Oh, hey Yoshi, hey Kenji,” Babs waved.
Tess’ eyes narrowed. “You know about this? What the fuck Babs?”
Babs shrugged, “Let’s go guys. Everyone’s waiting.” She closed the door.
Tony put Yoshi back on the table beside Kenji, wiped his hands on his jeans and started to stand up. “I wanna check this again later, dude. Fucking crazy. Let’s go?”
Steve nodded, “Yes. We’d better.”
“Steve?” Tess scolded. “Show Fuller what we talked about?”
“Oh. Yes! That’s right.” Steve wagged a finger in the air and stood. He took a small box from a shelf in a glass display case across the room and returned to his seat on the floor at the table. “Now this is something completely different.” He held the closed box forward with two hands for all to see, then carefully lifted the lid to present the contents as one does when proposing marriage. Inside was a small thin bone, about seven centimeters long. Steve removed it and handed it to Fuller.
The bone was rough and uneven, with the appearance and texture of an elongated dirty rock. At its middle it bulged outward where something had been fused to it with time, covered over with a thick calcification.
“Check this out.” Steve held a candle forward reaching to turn the finger over, pointing to the area where some of the corrosion had chipped away revealing the corner of a dark-green stone and tarnished metal. “I’ve been meaning to clean this, but I’m worried I’ll damage it.”
“Where did this come from?” Fuller looked at Steve, holding the finger up between them.
“Do you know what it is?”
“I’m not sure. Can you take me where you found it?”
Steve looked to Tony, who shrugged in approval.
“Sure. We’ll go tomorrow. The worst of this should be over by then. You guys can crash here tonight. I’ll tell the others.”
The door opened. It was Tom. “Hey. Shitheads. Have you lost your manners? We’re waiting. Get your asses out here now.”
Steve rose and clapped his hands together. “To be continued. Tomorrow we ride.” He went to the door where Tom stood, looking him in the eyes imploringly, arms outstretched. “We just got held up with some business. I’m sorry.” He put an arm around Tom’s waist and pulled him close, quickly kissing him on the mouth, then turned to the others. “Tom has a wonderful voice. You’re in for a treat.”
New chapters coming soon