They came one day, their green army trucks all in one winding line, rumbling down the nearby road. I’d heard the noise, running to the balcony to look across the familiar swaying fields of sugar cane in our family’s plantation, palm fronds bowing gently to the humid breeze. Lazy mosquitoes flicked in and out of the courtyards of the large house, a solid white against the tropical background. Yet there was a difference; at the normally deserted road I could make out a line of trucks with their fluttering white flags and blood-red circles. Soon I heard the rush of running footsteps to find my mom tugging me away from the open balcony to the sheltered curtains within. She was joined by all the other women—the maids, my nanny and my older sister. I looked questioningly at their pinched faces, eyes revealing a fear they dared not voice.
“Whose trucks are those, Mommy? The ones with the flags? Why can’t I look?” I was shushed by looks from the rest, all of them craning their necks to peek at the line.
“Th- they’re the Japanese and that is their flag,” my mother answered hesitantly, adding bitterly, “probably bringing reinforcements for the cities.” The trucks were only a distant rumble now, like the thunder before a storm. I looked up at her, my ten-year-old braids swinging, wondering if this was about that word I’d heard whispered during meals. What was it? Occupation. One never said it out loud, as though to do so would be to accept defeat, but even I knew it existed, a looming storm cloud not yet bursting to rain. It meant long famished months of food shortages and foreign soldiers who destroyed our government, all the while claiming the Philippines as their own. It was 1942 and somehow, that storm cloud seemed so much closer to raining after I first saw the Japanese trucks. Somehow I knew our lives were about to change. How, I did not know. Somehow.
* * *
I’d heard my mom say often that change was slow on the islands. If it ever came at all, it came slowly. And even if it did creep up on us unsuspected, it was met with such determined opposition it usually ran away. She said all this with pride, as though change was something to be feared. Maybe there was more truth to her statements than anyone realized, for after that first day the Japanese came my world did change, and it was every bit as awful as Mom made it sound. Except it wasn’t slow; this change arrived overnight and no matter how hated I knew it wasn’t going to run away.
Change was evident at school, where our class was taught about bomb raids. Once a week a shrill siren would sound and like scared cats in water at once we all jumped and huddled under our desks, glancing at each other. It was almost a game—who could remain the quietest and most still until the imminent all clear.
Then, at home ugly black curtains were put up on all the windows every night, dark shadows next to the familiar flowered frills. When I asked why these were needed, Mom pursed her lips, while Daddy muttered something about needing to be “invisible” and “safety” against “bombs.” The following day Mom placed all her jewelry in one big metal box. The pearls I’d longed to play dress-up with, heavy gold chains and even the sparkling diamonds were all put in, never to twinkle again for a very long time. She gave this box to Daddy, who dug a hole one night and dropped it in, burying everything. My older sister finally admitted that it was to hide them in case of war.
War? Who ever said anything about war? That was a long forgotten remnant of the past, remembered only in dusty school textbooks. The Japanese may be occupying the Philippines, yet they weren’t causing war. Really, they didn’t do much that we could tell, not yet at least. The bomb drills were a precaution, nothing more. But if all that was true, why was my sister talking about war? And suddenly it came to me. This change was war.
“You’re the Japanese and I’m the Americans,” my sister announced one afternoon, weeks after the Japanese had arrived. We were playing a familiar game of Bad Guys versus Good Guys, except now the Japanese were bad and the Americans were good. Our plantation was a bubble, and though we might catch rare glimpses of the war outside, that bubble had yet to pop. Without any chance of seeing real battles, my sister and I had to be content with our own fake ones. And as usual, I was the bad guy.
“Not fair! I was the Japanese last time!”
“Fine . . . but only this once,” my sister conceded surprisingly Sometimes being the older, better, smarter sister wasn’t the unbeatable weapon it appeared. Satisfied, she started running down the lawn, whizzing past green-fronded plants and a menagerie of jewel-like flowers or even the odd bird, the scorching afternoon sun beating down relentlessly. Shaded by the cluster of trees, I waited. I was still too little to win if I tried to beat her running, so I listened to her feet pounding, bouncing, skipping, until finally my chance came. She stopped, gasping for breath, and I darted into the hot sun, tapping her back and declaring, “I win!”
“You can’t win . . . The Japanese always win!”
“Yeah well . . . the Americans are the good guys and the good guys have to win.”
“If the Americans are so good, the Japanese wouldn’t even be here now!”
“Shhh . . .” I was hissing at the sound of wheels on gravel breaking the tense silence.
“What, it’s just a stupid truck.” All the same, she peered around the bush with me. Craning my neck, I could just make out one of the now common army trucks in the circular driveway. However, the Japanese flag was nowhere to be found. Out of the truck stepped a soldier, his pale skin as unusual as the unfamiliar uniform. Though his blue eyes appeared grim, he gave a sad little half-smile at the two of us, hiding unsuccessfully. Without another word the stranger knocked on the door, was received, and disappeared inside.
* * *
My parents broke the news at dinner that night. The soldier hadn’t been Japanese as I’d thought, but an American, sent to tell us we would have to evacuate the plantation within the week. It was part of the war effort. So, Mom explained, the family would be leaving on a little “adventure,” nothing more or less. And just like that our protective bubble popped and the war came seeping in, in ever more obvious torrents.
An adventure, that was all.
But later, as I surveyed my messy room, listening to the harried packing, I had to keep reminding myself Dad’s lined face certainly spoke of more than an adventure. And when Mom came in to help me pack, her eyes were bloodshot, as though she’d been crying. Watching the distracted way her trembling hands folded shirts, suddenly I felt the adult and she the child. A lump formed in my throat as I fought back tears of confusion, desperation. Tears for what I had lost and couldn’t ever find again.
Looking up into the solemn faces of all my dolls, lined up on their shelf like a troop of soldiers, it seemed the whole world was sad. Their soft ringlets might not lose their bounciness or their bright silken dresses their sheen, but inside they would be falling apart. I wished I could be their knight, and rescue them and take them on my adventure, yet Mom had said I could only take one . . . Lilly, Tibby, Lucy, and Jackie . . . they all stretched out in an eternal line of hopelessness. Finally, I picked Mary cradling her familiar stiff doll frame.
* * *
The morning of our departure, my family left very early. We just piled everything into the car as though my parents were in a rush to leave. I envied Mary her unseeing glass eyes, that didn’t have to watch as Daddy took one sweeping look at the house, then ducked into the car, followed by Mom, her mouth set, desperately trying to appear strong. Something was going awfully wrong; this was all supposed to be something out of a storybook, where the optimistic heroes skipped along on their quest, then hopped back home, having beaten the evil monster and proven their bravery. Instead, my family was scared, terrified of something I couldn’t even name.
As we drove away I watched the plantation growing smaller and smaller, until it was a tiny white pinprick on the horizon. By now the heat stung like a bite, leaving everyone sticky and uncertain, and still I strained for a last glance of home. That’s when it happened.
I smelled it first, a hint of smoke carried by the gentle breeze. Then I saw it. The white pinprick was a wavering red as though it were . . . fire. It was burning. My home was burning. Disbelief. Shock. “Is that . . .” I turned to Mom for answers, and gasped to see her bent over, tears streaming unchecked.
“We didn’t tell you . . . didn’t want you to worry . . .” That was Dad, his own face working to contain his grief.
“But it’s on fire . . .” Now it was my sister, uncharacteristically speechless.
“The Americans are burning it so the Japanese can’t use it as headquarters. It is part of the war effort. We can’t go back,” Dad replied flatly, though I barely heard him. Two words echoed over and over. Fire. Burning. Burning fire. I saw it, could almost hear it, feel it. Crackling and snapping, with grabbing hands snatching, engulfing everything. I imagined my little shelf of dolls falling into the angry jaws of the flames. Each one tumbling down the stairs, their pale faces stained black by ash, defenseless until they were buried by the rubble. Buried and gone forever. Instinctively I clutched at Mary, the only survivor of her troop. Her porcelain face was unmarred by my nightmare, facing straight ahead, an ironic smile lighting her features. She spoke of a future.