The Great Fire Demon
By now, Goku had grown accustomed to finding burning corpses coming for him around every corner, but it was nonetheless sickening. Especially when they spoke to him.
Today, he had been running a simple errand. The unfamiliarity of the streets had been the beginning of his heart palpitations. A deep-rooted kind of anxiety that always felt more like a wicked demon squeezing at Goku’s heart and lungs, trying to ruthlessly knead every last bit of air out of him. He had walked without breath for more steps than he’d have cared to count before turning the corner and seeing them. The fire demons.
They limped towards Goku with certainty and demanding hunger. Their faces were the same as always; concealed by the flames that enveloped them. But in Goku’s mind, the expressions behind those flames must have been a horrifying mix of anguish and an unrelenting desire to lay hands on him. The parts of their body that Goku could see were blackened and peeling. The scent of their melting and burning skin made his throat tighten and his stomach wilt.
‘Help us!’ one of them cried. It was impossible to tell the gender of the person, but Goku thought it didn’t matter; whatever features had once made this person any form of human had long ago died and was replaced with this horrifying creature sent to the living world by Akuma, the fire demon.
From behind him, he felt two scorching hands grasp on to his shoulders. The flames seared into his flesh and his legs gave way from under him. Kneeling down, he could only gaze upwards and hope that these people – these things – would go about their business quickly so that he could escape this nightmare. But time seemed to slow as one by one, the fiery bodies came to him, placed hands upon him and let the flames that plagued them become one with Goku. Making out some of their faces now, he observed that many of their eyes were completely missing, as though they’d been the first things to melt upon contact with whatever state of affairs had caused them their suffering.
‘Help us! Help us!!’
And now the sky lit up in a light so bright Goku could only see it for a moment before he lost his vision. As he felt his body become overwhelmed by the flames, he could only scream and continue to hope in vain for some sort of mercy.
‘Your brother said they found you lying in the street, screaming.’
He heard his father’s words only distantly, as though they had been spoken from the next room and not the one they shared. They reverberated in Goku’s mind like tiny ghosts whispering in an unfamiliar language. Moments before, he had been terrorised by demons. Now, he was haunted by the emptiness of the world around him. A world that had inexorably and profoundly changed.
‘There is no need to scream any more,’ his father said. ‘The plight is over. You are safe here.’
Goku heard the words, but did not listen to them. His gaze had been fixed on his father’s purple iris at the window. A wondrous thing; it sat there by the window as though today was merely some ordinary, happy day. As though beyond the window lay a world at peace. How peculiar that something so still and tranquil could exist at all anymore in a place so enveloped by horror.
‘You must not show such weakness,’ Goku’s father continued. Sill, the words barely sounded like language at all. ‘You will bring shame upon the family. Upon me.’
The air around him was coated with misery. Beyond the walls of the house, the streets were weeping undignified tears of blood. Yet here, the iris stood against it all. In spite of the suffering.
‘Bad enough that our country has surrendered. If you can no longer hold any honour in being Japanese then at least try to keep some in being my son.’
It was beautiful, actually. The flower. And even if it had been the last piece of beauty left on this earth, it was still something to be celebrated. More than this, it was extraordinary. It was –
Goku’s thoughts were disturbed when the iris suddenly toppled and fell to the floor underneath a copy of Soseki Natume’s I Am a Cat. Goku’s head snapped towards his father, who was irate.
‘Are you even listening to me, boy? What in the name of…’
But his father’s words now were more than just unrecognisable; they were insignificant. For the thing that occupied Goku’s mind now was his father’s face. It was red. As red as the rising sun. And it was getting bigger. As his father continued to shout words that Goku could not hear, his head expanded and ignited. It was his eyes that caught fire first, melting in their sockets and dripping to the floor in a pool of filth. As the head enlarged even more, the sockets where the eyes had been became two giant and dark but fiery valleys that would soon become large enough to swallow Goku whole.
Before Goku could react, his father’s head suddenly exploded, a mushroom cloud of blood rising to the ceiling, staining it, the walls, and everything in sight red. But still, his father stood, and now, in his head’s place came the face of another. A woman, Goku thought, but it was difficult to tell. Her face had blackened and scarred, and, like his father, her eyes had melted away.
‘Goku!! Why don’t you help me? Why!?’
Not for the first time – nor, Goku suspected, the last – he fled in terror, screaming as he went.
He had suddenly become both deaf and blind. That’s what he told his brother now as he sat with him. Kazumi had always been a good listener, and an older brother whom Goku could rely on.
‘At first, I did not realise there had been an explosion,’ Goku said. ‘Darkness shrouded my vision, and I could hear nothing but a distant ringing.’
He did not look at the face of Kazumi. Not since their father’s had exploded. Instead he had kept his narrow eyes fixed on the path directly in front of him as he searched for things like his father’s iris. Things of peace and beauty. But he had found none. A garden that had suffered from much loss after the American firebombing raids was where he had regained some of his composure, and somehow, Kazumi had been able to find him. He always seemed to know where Goku might be, even if Goku had not known himself.
‘When my vision finally returned, I saw a great cloud above the city. Underneath it was nothing but death. Desolation. It was a force unlike anything I’d ever imagined.’
‘It is safe now, Goku,’ Kazumi said. ‘You escaped. You are alive and well. You are fortunate.’
But Goku did not feel fortunate. In many ways, he felt as though it might have been better had he been closer to the blast. Somewhere in the middle of it. The people who had died there might not have even known that anything had happened at all. They might have been going about their day at one moment, and then at the next they disappeared. Like switching off a light.
But the ones who were just a little further away…
They took longer to die. They watched through bleeding eyes as the gargantuan black cloud rose to the sky, the American plane whizzing away from it as those within laughed, proud of their work. Proud of the slaughter of children. They saw the city disappear in a fire that was mightier than that of the most savage volcano. And when they caught fire themselves, the horror they must have felt! The desperate panic!
Most of those people died, and sometimes Goku thought that was their fortune. For who could carry on with a normal life afterwards? But in the area where Goku had stood, most people had survived. And it felt like a curse. Goku had at first stumbled around in fear, blinded by the brightness of the light of a thousand suns that had flashed just before the explosion. But when his vision returned, he had been forced to watch the people who had become cocooned in flames. He watched them run down the street in anguish and terror, desperate to find some way of extinguishing the fire. He had been so transfixed by the scene that he had forgotten to breathe, or to check that he even still could. And then he had panicked; breathing in the fumes from this evil new weapon might have been just as deadly as becoming entrapped in its flames.
It was as though the entire world he’d come to know had all at once vanished, and was replaced in every direction with the worst kind of horror. A woman whose hair had burned completely away knelt not far from Goku and screamed into the sky as she wept tears of blood. In her arms she held a baby. Goku did not know whether the woman was aware that the baby was on fire. A man rushed into a half-collapsed building, shouting the names of what Goku could only assume were his own children. His face and arms were badly burned. A charred mess of a body lay on the floor ahead of him, the left arm twitching. It would be merciful if Goku could be brave enough to help this thing that had used to be a human die. But he could not.
He could only stand there, under the shadow of the cloud of fury, and watch the chaos of a dismantling world he used to know as it turned to ash. And he saw within that furious cloud, the laughing, mocking face of the most fierce and unforgiving fire demon.
‘It is over,’ Kazumi said. ‘The whole war is over. We have surrendered.’
For the first time, Goku felt a small urge to look at his brother. The war was over? It was what his father had claimed too. But it made no sense to Goku. The Japanese people did not surrender. The Americans knew that they would fight to the last man, woman and child.
‘Here,’ Kazumi said. He handed Goku a newspaper. The headlines were full of dismay. The war was going badly. The Americans would soon defeat Japan. But of course, the main story concerned the devastation caused by the incredible power of the new weapon.
Thousands die in devastating new attack by the US
What will the Soviet Union do?
How many bombs will it take to convince Emperor Hirohito to surrender?
‘There is no official word on a surrender,’ Goku said. ‘You talk only of rumours.’
Goku could feel his brother’s eyes on him. When Kazumi spoke, Goku felt the weight of every word.
‘If you were the emperor, what would you do?’
Goku nodded. Whether or not this was the truth, the very fact that his brother remained hopeful was a thing too rare and wondrous in these grim days to ignore.
‘Come on,’ Kazumi said. ‘Let’s get you back to Father’s house. You should try to eat something.’
With a sigh, Goku threw the newspaper to the side, and followed his brother back towards central Nagasaki.
The date on the newspaper read: 9th August 1945.
Their father was quiet. He made no mention of the earlier incident, but would speak no words to Goku, communicating only with Kazumi.
A heavy ball found itself resting in Goku’s stomach. As though something around him wasn’t right. As though perhaps the great fire demon from his memory and nightmares had reared its head once more.
The house became still. The soundless dread filled the air like a poisonous gas with plans of destruction.
Goku felt sick now. Sick from the fear, the misery, the sorrow. And the dreadful feeling that something more was to come.
More fiery undead? No, that wasn’t it.
It was a drone. A distant drone from outside that sounded very much to Goku like…
‘A plane!! An American plane!!’
The panic-stricken voice bellowed from somewhere near the house. Goku heard it from the open window.
Kazumi raced to the door and Goku followed. They looked up to the sky.
Yes. An American plane. With strange red lights flashing at its belly.
The doors opened. Something dropped.
It would land not even a mile from where they stood.
‘Father!!’ Kazumi shouted, and he ran back into the house.
But Goku did not. Goku stood at the doorway and watched the thing fall from the sky.
If he could, he would at once cry and laugh. He would cry bloody tears of horror and anguish at the thought of what was about to happen to him. To his brother. His father. His city. His people.
And he would laugh because he was fortunate. Fortunate to not have to live with what happened next.
This time he did not lose his vision. He saw every twisted detail. He remained standing at the doorway while the heat of the inside of a sun engulfed him. While he watched the mushroom cloud rise up to the heavens. While his body caught fire.
If anything could have been left of his skeleton, he thought they might find his skull still grinning.
But his last thought before succumbing to the pain and the fire turned now to the children of the city. Will their deaths be worth the end of the war?
And he thought: yes. Yes they will. For what kind of fool would believe this wicked new world to be a suitable place for children?
This story received an honourable mention in the 2022 Globe Soup Historial Fiction contest. Read more about Globe Soup here.