Ms. Shaw’s day began like any other. She at breakfast at six a.m., a single, steaming cup of black coffee. She dressed in her usual starched white button-down shirt with a black overcoat and a black skirt. Her small blue Honda she had named Shun, which meant good horse in Japanese. This morning it started quickly. She still received a familiar flutter in her stomach every time she pulled into the Daini Junior High School. The stone walls around the school were covered in moss that clung to the blocks as if it had been painted. They comforted her when she drove through the gate; the school was her real home. She belonged here with her students.
She had begun teaching in Japan in late August. A substitute teacher in the U.S., she had won a grant to teach fulltime in Japan. She’d packed everything she owned and left her family and friends behind. Teaching English to the Japanese students had been much more rewarding than teaching in American classrooms as just a lowly substitute. There had definitely been some culture shock in the beginning, but she had learned quickly from her students and had managed to pick up their language very quickly. She taught three different grade levels, fifteen students in each class period, six periods a day.
Now, after eight months in Japan, she felt she had the hang of teaching in a style that served her students well. She even thought that most of her students liked her. Many Mondays she received a thank-you card in the mail from a student’s parents.
Today was Friday, the end of the long week of school, and all her students were already planning their weekend with friends and family. She parked in the full teacher’s lot and glanced again at the moss-painted walls. Every time she looked at the stone walls, they seemed to have a new pattern of moss flowing over their surface.
She had stopped trying to beat other teachers to school; a few seemed like they never left in the first place. She crossed the lot, passing by the mossy walls, past the gold statue head of the founder, and past the huge bonsai tree, still sprouting green leaves, despite the season.
Inside she smiled at Mrs. Shizuka, the school’s receptionist.
“Ohayou, Ms. Shaw,” Mrs. Shizuka said.
Mrs. Shizuka was dressed similarly to Ms. Shaw, with a plastic nametag, pinned to her shirt in Japanese characters and, below, her name in English. Mrs. Shizuka had blue-black hair and skin so perfect that Ms. Shaw wanted to ask if she used any facial cream, but she knew the question would be too personal.
She had to get some maps from the storage closet to set up in her classroom, so she waved a quick goodbye to Mrs. Shizuka and hurried along down the clean hallway; the custodial staff worked at night to have the school spotless in the morning. She was happy to be situated on the third floor, since the classrooms there had a much better view of the small city near Sendai, and the trees swayed outside along with the breeze. Her first round of students trickled just before eight. Kaori Nobu arrived first, as usual, and sat in the front row. Miss Nobu was always very prompt, her homework never late and never done incorrectly. Once, Miss Nobu had told her that she wanted to get into one of the top high schools in Tokyo, but that admissions were extremely competitive. A lot of smart girls didn’t get in. Miss Nobu’s uniform was always ironed and seemed tailored to fit her petite body perfectly. She consistently laid out two new sharpened pencils each morning on top of her desk. Then she would sit quietly, waiting until the last bell chimed, indicating that class had officially begun for the day. The student said good morning and Ms. Shaw smiled at them looking forward to her classes.
Ms. Shaw had a special place in her heart for Miss Nobu, ever since she’d seen some girls picking on her after school one day.
They had pushed Miss Nobu into the outer wall of the school’s compound. Miss Nobu didn’t look up at her, when Ms. Shaw hurried over and asked if she was okay. She just picked up her broken pencils from between the tall blades of sharp grass. Green moss clung to Miss Nobu’s jacket, which she brushed it off gently. Then, Miss Nobu began to cry. Ms. Shaw hugged her close. She had never been this close to one of her students before. She walked her home, and along the way she told Miss Nobu about her life before Japan. She knew if she spoke English that Miss Nobu would understand, since she was practically fluent in the language.
Their steps were slow as the sun shined down on their different heights.
“Why did you become a substitute?” Miss Nobu asked.
She looked down and into Miss Nobu’s eyes, which were a dark brown, almost black, the color of the crabs that scuttled on the beaches near here. This was the first time Miss Nobu made eye contact with her.
“My mom had been a teacher while I was growing up.” Ms. Shaw said. “Her students would come over and say how great she was. I wanted to be like that.”
“You are a great teacher, Ms. Shaw,” Miss Nobu said quietly.
Ms. Shaw rubbed her hand through Miss Nobu’s carefully arranged blue-black hair. It made it poof up and made her look like a kid her age. She needed a little fun in her life, Ms. Shaw thought.
“So what does your mom do now?”
“She kept teaching until the day she couldn’t anymore. She died when I turned eighteen. It’s been almost eight years now.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so nosy. I’m sorry.” Miss Nobu ducked her head.
They stood outside her house, which looked just like Miss Nobu; clean, pristine and organized, not even a leaf out of place. Her house was big compared to most, but she knew Miss Nobu’s family came from wealthy blood.
“It’s okay. I have had awhile to accept her death and there was nothing anyone could do for her. She had a stroke while she was teaching and she never woke up after that.” Ms. Shaw watched as Miss Nobu hesitated beside her, chewing her lower lip. As Miss Nobu walked away, Ms. Shaw called out,
“I enjoyed talking and walking with you. Maybe every Friday we can walk together?”
Miss Nobu nodded her head, excitement and happiness showing on her perfect pale skin. Her black eyes seemed to have lightened. Ms. Shaw could now make out where the dark brown met the small black pupil.
Miss Nobu ran inside her house, her school jacket flowing behind her.
The next Friday, she wrote on the white board the line from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
Ms. Shaw’s mother had gone into a coma, and her family decided to let her mother “go into Gods hands.” Her father did not call her at college until after her mother’s heart monitor had stopped beeping.
She had decided that she would never return home after that. She occasionally spoke to her father, but their conversations were infrequent and awkward. Her mother had been the glue for her family. Her younger brother never spoke to her; he felt she had abandoned him after their mother’s death. He had only been sixteen. But she had known that if she returned, she would have been consumed by grief that she would have felt obligated to stay and try to make everything right. God had taken her mother from her, away from her students.
As Ms. Shaw’s students finished reading, she realized she had been gazing into space. She had not understood Shakespeare when she was younger, but she loved the plays now, and she thought that exposing the Japanese students to Shakespeare would help them learn to appreciate the complexities and beauties of the language. Most of the girls adored this play, as well as Romeo & Juliet, whereas the boys enjoyed Hamlet and Macbeth. She had the students read aloud, each passing the book around. They stumbled over the words, but even American students at this stage had trouble pronouncing or understanding. Today was an easy day because it was Friday. She was looking forward to telling Miss Nobu another story or perhaps hearing one from her today, while they walked home.
It was 2:30pm, near the end of the school day. She was listening to her students read aloud the last scene of the play, correcting some pronunciation problems.
Mr. Ryo read aloud the last lines: If we shadows have offended,/Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear.
As he reached the end, she felt a queasy sensation run through her stomach. She looked around; the students also had the same perplexed expression flitting across their faces. Then the ground began to shake under her feet; the thought broke into her mind: earthquake. The table in front of her began to move, and her students’ desks jerked away from them, making a horrible screeching sound. The building itself seemed to call out, stone grinding against stone and plaster.
The students began to scream. Some tried to run to the door, but the floor shook so violently they became unbalanced, as if they had never walked before. She called out to them as the sirens from the town gave a weak wail, too late in its warning. Try and get to the roof through the staircase, she shouted at them. If the building were to collapse, they would be crushed. They hurried out the door; some of the students from other classes followed Ms. Shaw, but some of her students followed the other teachers downstairs. She screamed for the others to follow her to the rooftop, but her voice was drowned out.
The students who had gone ahead of her called to her and she turned her back on the others. She ran up the stairs, helping some girls to hurry along with her. Then the power shut off, and the stairs went black. They reached the rooftop. Smoke rose out of nearby buildings. Those still standing were swaying violently. Girls and boys huddled together, pulling their knees to their chests, praying in Japanese or calling out for their parents. Ms. Shaw sat down, Miss Nobu curled against her side as if trying to hide. The wail of the sirens abruptly cut off, but the terrible groaning of the earth continued.
Suddenly, the shaking stopped. The school building swayed underneath them. She got up on shaky legs, Miss Nobu still attached to her side. Her hair had come undone from her tight ponytail. It fell against her cold, sweating forehead and into her eyes. She counted how many students were with her on the roof; thirty students plus two teachers, who had decided to follow her. She also saw Mrs. Shizuka.
“Is everyone okay?” she called out.
Some spoke aloud, their voices filled with tears or fear. Almost everyone else nodded in response.
She began to say that it was safe to exit the building, when a second wave of quakes hit them. The building jerked hard with the first quake, and it made a piercing sound as it tilted to the left. Everyone grasped for something, but there was nothing. The building crushed through the first floor. The quakes seemed to get stronger. She looked across the skyline to see the, taller buildings, begin to crumble and clear the horizon. Once, she had wished to see past those buildings, but now she wished she had never wished for something so cruel.
The trees outside her classroom that she had enjoyed so much began to uproot themselves. One tree collapsed onto the roof, crushing one of the teachers and a student. The other teacher screamed, “We’re all going to be crushed.”
A part of her wanted to accept that it was the end of the world, but with Miss Nobu clinging to her side, she couldn’t. She yelled for them to come away from the tree, most falling in their attempts to move between the quaking.
The quakes ended again. All she could hear now were the screams of people nearby calling out for help. She felt sick, her stomach turning. She watched as Mr. Shiro paced the building rooftop, calling his wife on his cellphone; leaving voicemail after voicemail. She had met his wife, who was seven months pregnant. Looking over what was left of the city, she hoped that Mrs. Shiro had survived. Mr. Shiro started to cry, falling to his knees. She looked away as tears began to form in her eyes. The students wanted to go home, but there was no way of any of them getting down off the roof safely. They had to wait till someone came for them… if they came for them.
She had fallen asleep, with Miss Nobu wrapped closely against her, but something woke her. At first, she thought it was another aftershock, they had gone on continually for the last few hours but there was no shaking. She peeled Miss Nobu off of her body and stood, looking around the outer edges of the city. The sound reached her ears first, then the vibrations in her feet, and lastly the sight. She thought she was dreaming, perhaps making it up. A student woke and began to scream “Wave!” Everyone awoke and began running into the ruined building for shelter. The wave looked bigger than the building as it rushed towards them. She followed her students into the staircase of the building, shutting the door behind her, hoping the wave would pass by quickly enough so that they all didn’t drown. Everyone began praying. The wave hit the building and water broke through the old bricks like they were sand. She blacked out as water enveloped her.
She woke up coughing, lying on her back. She looked up into the mass of blue sky above her; there was nothing else in the sky but an endless supply of blue. She tried to move her arms, but they felt too heavy. One of her arms, she realized, was broken, as the pain laced through her muscles and straight into her head. Her legs were pinned under blackened wet wood. Using her one arm, she managed to sit up. It took her a while to push the black wood from her legs; she couldn’t lift it, and the wood scraped against her skin, making her spill bright red blood. She had no idea where she was. There were no longer any buildings to distinguish a place. Her students would be terrified, she thought. She looked around her, searching for any sign of her students, of life. It took her a while to stand and her arm burned every time she moved, but she began walking through the rubble.
It seemed as if she had walked for a long time. She stopped whenever she saw a body, but none of them were alive; no one was. She found one body buried in the rubble, the arm was the only thing visible; a pale sickly white/gray color, a gold wedding band on the finger. She couldn’t budge any of the debris around the body; she continued her search.
She walked for hours, teeth clamped together against the cold air. She knew she was on the verge of getting hypothermia, and that if she didn’t find warmth soon, she would die. Her eyelids began to droop. She stumbled; falling to the rubble, giving up. She laid there for a long time just counting her breaths. Then she lost consciousness.
She woke to see rescuers walking slowly through the devastation, looking for survivors. They wore quarantine jumpsuits and masks on their faces. She thought of men walking on the moon; she laughed in her head, words unable to develop in her throat. One man knelt beside her, touched her throat, and waved for others to come. A blanket was dropped over her body. She was lifted into another man’s arms. She wanted to tell them that she wanted to stay and die like all her students, but again no words came.
The man carried her for a long time, and she began to feel his warmth seep into her body. They stopped when other bodies were found; only three survivors were found after her rescue.
After she had been transported back to the U.S., she learned that many bodies had been found, but many people still searched for their loved ones; some bodies, she heard, had been dragged back into the sea by the wave. She wondered if Miss Nobu’s body had ever been found, or if her body was still lying on top of debris; a black crab moving slowly over her white/gray skin. That image never left her mind.