Japan 1944: Fusen Bakudan, The Time and Fates of Man
JAPAN 1944: FŪSEN BAKUDAN
When fifteen-thousand Japanese school girls giggle,
they hide their mouths with riffling fingers
that hover as weightless as hummingbird wings.
This is why General Kusaba chooses them.
On the coastal curve of Honshū, these slight vessels,
no younger than thirteen, no older than fifteen
gather each day after school, in empty sumo halls,
theaters, and factories to serve their country.
Those delicate fingers numb white in winter
spreading thick the Devil's Tongue, pasting squares
of washi paper, like large blank maps, one on another,
with the tenderness of snowflakes falling on feathers.
Still the paper rends with thin gaps and tiny puckers
like the beak split skin of a grape. Soldiers with sharp rebuke
use candles, magnifying glasses, and the burnished glow
of light tables to inspect and reinspect the work.
The girls paste and patch, layer upon layer, day upon day
until the paper thickens, stretches into longitudes, joins
into hemispheres and seals, air-tight, around a broad equator.
This is the origami of Fūsen Bakudan, giant fire balloons.
Workers turn the orbs one section at a time while dozens
of girls, in unison, brush the paper with lacquer to protect
the balloon from rain. The girls' soft fingers crack dry
in cold, sting hot as camphor and resin seep into skin.
Each night in the silver hours, as the tide sways high
and the moon rises up like a defiant fist, soldiers prepare
finished balloons for launch. They use hydrogen
to inflate them to a precise diameter of thirty meters.
The girls help rig each balloon with long hemp ropes
that knot together to form a basket from which they hang
an aluminum ring with built-in altitude sensors, a circle skirt
of sandbags for ballast, and a automatic mechanical release
for four cylindrical incendiary weapons and a single dangling
anti-personnel bomb, cradled like an egg in an eagle's claw.
The girls think the balloons look like pregnant jellyfish
as they bob and float, disappearing into the womb of night.
The soldiers bow in reverence to the girls and the general
bestows upon them the grateful appreciation of the emperor.
The girls weep into withered hands as each balloon spirals
up sparing a handsome pilot, a brave brother, a future husband.
Some of the girls dream the paper balloons carry messages
asking enemies for peace. They do not understand
these sky lanterns are ropes designed to strangle at a distance,
choke the enemy with smoke, burn fields, farms, and forests.
Ninety-three hundred balloons launch night after night from
the tender cupped hands of schoolgirls. A thousand ride swift
on the jet stream across the Pacific and survive the journey
to the west coast of America. Only two complete the mission.
One snags and snaps power lines at Hanford and for thirty-two
seconds halts the production of plutonium that will ride on air,
and like a silver hammer, crack Nagasaki. The second, catches flaccid
in a pine and explodes six Oregon children, who reach for the message.
THE TIME AND FATES OF MAN
(inspired by the Paul Manship sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens)
The bronze sundial greens
in April rain. Overhead,
the long beam of its gnomon
splits the sky with angled pen
ready to scribe the hour,
but without sun ink pauses
in mid-stroke. The weight
of this motion rests atop boughs
of the ancient tree of life.
While sheltered beneath the branches,
three sisters grasp the fates of men
in oxidizing hands.
Seventy years ago this sculpture
shaped with plaster,
glowed white with spring light,
towered eighty-feet tall,
and cast its measure
over New York City,
over 1939 and the Worldís Fair,
over the fortunes of forty-four million.
They came to experience
the "world of tomorrow" crawling
like innocent, unsuspecting
ants atop its dial-plate.
Visitors did not suspect
the Moirae, goddesses whom Zeus
dare not defy, observed them.
These mortals from around the globe,
loose threads, some knotted,
some frayed, others still spooling
cannot hear the coming goosestep echoes,
feel the rattle-crack of windowpanes
unmooring from the frame,
smell bone wafting on smoke,
or see the sucked breath sparkle and
shockwave exhale of atoms split.
Under the protection of the tree,
theirs is an eternal duty.
Branches poise lush and leaf-bound
above Clotho, the youngest,
body outstretched, breasts bare,
as she spins the thread of life.
Her chiton blows back with a swirl
against the ecstasy of birth and growth.
Lachesis stands behind, collecting
thread as if flows across her upturned
palms. Expressionless, she measures
span, determines length.
On the opposite side of the tree
beneath branches that fork barren,
a raven perches over the ministry
of death. Atropos, the oldest,
wrapped in thick peplos and hood,
sits on the ground. She curls forward,
face tipped down in shadow
as if in solemn prayer.
She holds shears agape
and the thread dangles
through the blades, waiting
for the bullet, the bayonet, the bomb.
Now these weavers trade plaster
for bronze, but the price
for permanence shrinks them. Paused
within the sundial they are ageless,
but the crowds that swooned
have withered. They preside over few,
and other gods in this garden steal
their seconds. Yet, still they hear
boots on sand, feel the vacuum rush
of windows blown from frame,
smell warm marrow on wind, and hold
charred threads of fate in their grip.