History Lessons – Toshiya Kamei

Specks of dust dance in shafts of yellow light. The projector produces an audible click underneath its low, buzzing drone. Black and white images flicker across the screen behind the lectern.

To blend in with the past, Elsa didn’t bring the latest equipment. She went back in time in disguise of a peasant. Hats off to her. What a brave girl. She never lets me forget my ancestors’ evil deeds. Japan’s genocide against the Chinese during a military conflict prior to World War II.

Today China remembers it as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. Japanese textbooks whitewash it. Block after block of charred buildings reel out. Severed heads stare vacantly into space, blood dark and crusted on pale chins. The next photo appears, and I mentally pat myself on the back for not wincing. A bayonet penetrates a pregnant woman’s belly. Her lifeless body sprawls in the midst of rubble. White ashes. A flurry of soot falls. Fear forever frozen on her face. A gleeful soldier stands over her and poses in triumph.

As one image of death and destruction replaces another at a mechanical pace, collective gasps and murmurs fill the room. Heads turn and my classmates whisper. Japanese soldiers methodically gun down unarmed civilians and dump their bodies into a makeshift ditch.

A blow-up of a grinning soldier fills my vision. Time slows to a crawl. Yasuo? Grandpa Yasuo? I gasp and avert my gaze. It can’t be. It’s not possible. The air sticks in my throat, and I can’t breathe. Cold sweat runs down my back. The chair legs screech against the linoleum floor as I push back, sprint out of the classroom, and dash toward the restroom.

As I puke up my breakfast into a stained porcelain bowl, my grandfather’s smile comes to me. His eyes disappear into wrinkles. I was his favorite granddaughter. He was my namesake. On the Buddhist altar back home, a stern-faced young man in his soldier’s uniform stares back from a framed sepia photo. It was him.

“It can’t be. No, it’s not him.” I shake my head as mucus and saliva mix into strings. A knock comes to the stall door, startling me.

“Are you okay, Yasumi?” Elsa comes in and rubs my back.

“I’m sorry,” I mumble.

* * *

I’m six. My mom drops me at my grandparents’ house in the suburbs. I wave at her as her white van drives away. As I step inside, a balmy air wraps around me. A faint smell of tobacco tickles my nose.

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