In 1945, Akiyuki Nosaka watched the Allied firebombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents, and then witnessed his sister starving to death. The shocking and blisteringly memorable stories of The Cake Tree in the Ruins are based on his own experiences as a child in Japan during the Second World War.
They are stories of a lonely whale searching the oceans for a mate, who sacrifices himself for love; of a mother desperately trying to save her son with her tears; of a huge, magnificent tree which grows amid the ruins of a burnt-out town, its branches made from the sweetest cake imaginable.
Profound, heartbreaking and aglow with a piercing beauty, they express the chaos and terror of conflict, yet also how love can illuminate even the darkest moment.
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THE WHALE THAT FELL IN LOVE WITH A SUBMARINE
The 15th of August 1945
South-south-east of the Izu Islands, off the coast of a small islet, there was a whale.
He wasn't swimming or blowing water through his spout, just floating on the swell as if everything else was too much bother, now and then closing his small eyes as if all he wanted to do was sleep.
Shoals of tuna and bonito and sardines — the whale's favourite — dashed past and crowded boisterously around the surface, but he pretended to ignore them and simply floated there like a log, although really he was rather too big for a log.
He was a sardine whale, so named for their snack of choice. Sardine whales average about sixteen metres long, but our whale floating here so terribly listlessly was uncommonly large at twenty metres, and weighed in at thirty tons — and to make matters worse, he was a male.
Unlike humans, female whales are bigger than males, and the bigger they are, the more splendid they are thought to be. And not just by the humans who hunt them for their meat and their oil, but by their very own fellow whales.
For the males, it wasn't so much a case of the smaller the better, but if like our whale they were bigger than the females, beyond what was acceptable, so to speak, then the females seemed to find them repulsive and refused to have anything to do with them.
Upon reaching adulthood, whales find a mate and travel the oceans together, giving birth to a baby whale once every two years. But this male was too big, and however hard he tried to attract a mate, emitting subsonic signals to alert the young females to a passing shoal of sardines or giving them gifts of shrimp, they simply ate their fill and then quickly swam away as if repelled at the mere sight of his enormous body.
In other words, our whale was a complete flop with the ladies. It wouldn't have been so bad if he'd just been bad-tempered or ugly — after all, there was some chance of finding a quirky female who was attracted to ill-natured males or odd looks. But being too big was a no-no. They were all scared of him.
He considered various possibilities, like maybe he ate too much and that was why he'd grown so big, or how he might join the larger finback whales in Antarctica — but when he tried to shrink himself by eating smaller quantities of shrimps and sardines he just got dizzy, and he couldn't bear the thought of living in such icy waters.
Whenever he happened to be near the pod he always felt anxious, so most of the time he stayed alone, eating and sleeping, then waking and spending the entire day rocked by the waves. At times it suddenly occurred to him that somewhere in the ocean there must be a female bigger than him, his perfect mate must be feeling lonesome waiting for him, and so he would rouse himself and swim off in a random direction.
Overhead a never-ending stream of aeroplanes flew northwards and then returned southwards, sometimes belching thin trails of smoke from their engines or flying so low and unsteadily that it seemed they would crash at any moment. These were the American bombers conducting air raids on the Japanese archipelago far to the north, although of course the whale didn't know this. There were also numerous ships, big and small, ploughing through the waves in a great hurry.
When the whale was little his mother had taught him that, if he ever saw a ship, he had to quickly dive into the depths and stay down as long as his breath lasted, swimming as far away from it as he could. Even if the ship was smaller than him, aboard there was an extremely cruel type of animal called a human. Upon catching sight of a whale, these humans immediately took it for an enemy and gave chase, firing harpoons at it. She herself had twice barely escaped with her life, and the horror of those memories still brought tears to her eyes as she told him about them.
"Had you done anything nasty to them?" he'd asked, unable to comprehend why the humans would hate whales that much. "Of course not! On the contrary, we are the most intelligent animals in the sea and quite capable of befriending humans," she replied, adding with a sigh, "If they were just a little kinder, we could even save them when they get into trouble."
This was true. Whales have the biggest brains of all animals, and are very intelligent. Long ago, dogs had become man's best friend by helping hunters, and whales could have done the same for humans at sea. But the humans just carried on killing them, and it was even said that whales would be extinct within twenty or thirty years unless they stopped.
Our whale, too, upon sighting a ship would hurriedly dive down and hold his breath, just as his mother had taught him, but there had been times when he wasn't paying attention and only noticed the ship when he was almost right by it. At such times he had closed his eyes tight waiting for the stab of the fearsome harpoon, but the humans had never shown him any violence, instead just calling, "Look at that whale — it's taking a nap!" as they sailed on by, waving at him.
"Maybe humans aren't such a terrible animal after all," he thought, and had once ventured to swim alongside a ship about the same size as himself. But then the humans had shouted, "Hey, don't come so close! If we're hit by something as big as you, we'll sink." Then there was the time he'd seen a single human inside a clumsy round yellow boat that looked a bit like a sunfish. When that human, who appeared to have been injured, caught sight of the whale, he'd said, "You gonna tow me to America, my friend?"
The whale had come of age in the winter spanning 1944 to 1945, when the war between Japan and America was drawing ever closer to the Japanese mainland. The humans who'd waved at him were Japanese soldiers on their way to defend Iwo Jima against the Americans and, aware of their impending death, they'd been envious of the peacefully napping whale. The small ship he'd swum alongside was a fishing boat there to detect the American planes as they headed for Japan, while the man in the clumsy little yellow boat was an American pilot who'd been shot down and was hoping against hope that he might be rescued. Far from wanting to kill the whale, they knew they themselves might die at any time and so they were friendly towards him.
By around mid-August, although he was fairly far south, the whale began to feel the first signs of autumn, and now and then he was rocked by an unexpectedly large swell whipped up by the baby typhoons forming even farther to the south of where he was napping.
"There aren't any planes flying today, either," he thought to himself. The sky that had been so busy was now completely still. Aeroplanes and whales had really nothing in common, but he had enjoyed watching the flocks of planes high in the sky as they headed north trailing white smoke, and in his solitude had even called out to them. Sometimes they would catch the sunlight and glitter like his beloved sardines, and the low-flying planes were shaped just like seagulls.
At sundown, the whale entered a narrow inlet on a small island. Until three months ago humans had been here endlessly digging holes, but he hadn't seen them recently and he felt as if everyone was abandoning him. Day turned to night, and night to day, in endless repetition. If that was all there was to life, he thought only half in jest, then he might as well die! He started swimming towards a clump of rocks at the end of the inlet. It was dangerous to go so fast in the narrow space between sheer cliffs, but the hell with it.
When he was within a whisker of the rocks, he turned sharply and headed back out to sea at top speed. He was swimming as fast as he could when, in the sea under the cliff to one side of him, he caught sight of something he hadn't seen for a while. For the past year he'd just felt sad whenever he came across other whales in the pod, so whenever he heard them chatting he would swim off as fast as he could. But he hadn't forgotten them even for a moment. Wasn't that one of them — and a female at that — hiding away there?
And what was more, this female was bigger than he was, at least half as big again. Even the blue whale females that he'd heard about couldn't be as big as this one.
Surprised, the whale first passed right by her, then, feeling a little calmer, he closed each eye in turn, as if winking, to check whether or not he was dreaming. A human might pinch himself in similar circumstances, but this is what whales do.
Ever so gently, using just his tail to propel him along, the whale approached. From her colour and shape, she was indeed another sardine whale. If he was really honest, her dorsal fin was a little on the large side, but her colour was good and she was nicely chubby, and altogether she was a splendid specimen. Right now, though, she appeared to be asleep.
The whale swam slowly around her wondering how he could strike up a conversation. They would make the perfect couple, she and he! A normal male would be only half her size and they would look more like mother and child. But he was just right for her, he thought, gradually growing in confidence. Impatient for her to wake up, he nudged her with his body.
But this was not a female of his own species, it was a submarine of the Japanese naval fleet.
* * *
Iwo Jima and Okinawa had both been occupied, and only the Japanese mainland remained to be defended. As a last resort, Japan had made many small submarines that were to be crashed into enemy ships. At thirty metres long and weighing fifty tons they were more or less the size of a blue whale. And it was one of these that was hiding in the inlet.
Inside the submarine, the captain and chief engineer were in deep discussion. At midday that day, Japan's unconditional surrender had been broadcast on the radio.
"It must be misinformation by the enemy."
"All the same, it sounded pretty authentic."
"Even if it's true, we won't surrender. For the glory of the Imperial Navy, we will go ahead with the suicide attack against the enemy fleet as planned."
"But it's an imperial decree, so won't we be betraying the Emperor himself ?"
"But simply raising the white flag means submitting to the enemy brutes!"
"Perhaps it would be more honourable to blow ourselves up?"
It was in the midst of their discussion that the whale had sidled up to them and bumped them in a display of his affection. Since the submarine depended on the correct balance between buoyancy and gravity to remain afloat, even just the slightest force made it sway alarmingly.
"Enemy attack! Prepare to counter depth charges!"
A depth charge was an explosive that was detonated in the sea to destroy submarines. Convinced that it was under attack, the submarine began to submerge.
Taken aback, the whale worried that he was being rejected yet again, and hurriedly began explaining for all he was worth: "Please don't run away! I didn't mean to wake you up. I don't want to hurt you, I just want to talk. I think you're gorgeous!" and dived down alongside the object of his affections, trying to snuggle up to her.
Now the submarine found itself being pushed upwards and pitched forwards. They should have heard depth charges exploding, but as it happened, everything was quiet. "We must have been caught up in an exceptionally strong current. Let's surface. Blow the main tank!" the captain ordered, although they were still upside down.
"What the heck?" As the upper half of the submarine floated above the surface of the ocean the captain leapt out onto the deck and was relieved to see no enemy in sight, but then he caught sight of something black nestling close to them in the moonlight.
He had no idea what it could be, but when it spouted water he realized it must be a whale. He and the chief engineer stared at it. The whale, for his part, was astonished to see humans emerging from his beloved, but more importantly she didn't seem to dislike him and remained floating by his side. And so he floated there with her, entranced.
The next morning, he went out to sea and herded a shoal of sardines into the inlet so that she could have breakfast. She hadn't said a word all night, and hadn't moved an inch, so he worried that she might be ill and brought some nutritious seaweed for her too. Then he implored her to leave this small inlet and come out to the open sea where they could swim freely and feed on shoals of shrimp.
But the submarine had no intention of doing any such thing. Having discussed the matter, the crew had decided to fight against America until the bitter end, and were now feverishly making preparations, putting on fresh underwear and writing farewell notes to their loved ones. "How about tying our farewell notes to the tail of that weird whale?" suggested the chief engineer, thinking that one day someone would catch the whale and find the notes.
One of the crew members took the bundle wrapped in oilskin, dived into the sea, and tied it to the whale's tail. Thinking that the female had at last accepted his advances and was sending him a gift, the whale allowed the bundle to be attached to his tail, where it fluttered like a ribbon.
Two days later, the submarine set sail in search of the American fleet, with the whale following joyously in tow. If they could find somewhere with plenty of sardines and shrimps, he thought, they would be able to start a family.
"A child with the two of us for parents is going to be awesome. If it's a male, he's going to have to work hard to find himself a big enough female, but that's all right. I eventually managed to find myself a wonderful mate," he thought glancing over at her, only to find that she had planted herself on the seabed thirty metres down and was refusing to move.
"So you weren't feeling well after all. I'm so sorry I made you come along! Now you've gone and worn yourself out." Whales are mammals, not fish, and need to go to the surface to breathe, so if she stayed like that she would die. The whale tried hard to push her up to the surface, but it was no good.
Upon leaving the shelter of the island, the submarine had immediately appeared on the Americans' radar, and all their ships specialized in submarine attack had converged on the area under orders to sink any vessel that refused to surrender. When surrounded like this, the only thing to do was to cut the engines, speak in whispers and sit still as a rock. The submarine had taken water into the tanks for weight, and even the whale wouldn't be able to budge it so much as an inch.
The whale became frantic with worry and swam hysterically around his beloved, but the gathered ships mistook him for the submarine and threw out a depth charge. Shocked by the loud explosion he swam off, but they gave chase. If he had headed for the depths of the ocean bed he might have saved himself, but he was anxious for his new love. How awful having something so terrible thrown at you when you were unwell! It was so unlucky to have this happen just when he'd at last found himself a mate, he thought woefully. But he didn't want to be alone any more, so if she had to die then they would die together. After all, he would never chance upon such a wonderful mate as her again.
When the whale turned round and began swimming furiously towards the submarine's hiding spot, a depth charge exploded right above him. Half his body was blown off, but still he desperately tried to reach his beloved and it took another few depth charges to blow his huge twenty-metre body to smithereens.
It was only three hours later that the ships dispersed, apparently satisfied. The submarine crew waited until they heard the propellers receding into the distance before nervously resurfacing.
The ocean was stained red. At first they thought it was the sunset, but then realized that actually it was the whale's blood. Looking closer, they could see bits of the whale's flesh, bones and tail strewn all over the waves. The American ships had mistaken the remains of the whale rising to the surface for fragments of the submarine.
The whale that had been making a nuisance of himself by hanging around them had saved their lives. Wordlessly, they saluted the sea of blood.
"Captain, look over there!" said one of the crew, pointing at the bundle of farewell notes, still tied like a ribbon to the whale's tail bobbing on the waves amidst the scraps of flesh. "Shall we go get it?"
"Leave it be," said the captain, shaking his head. After the whale had sacrificed itself for their sake, his previous fanaticism had entirely dissipated and he no longer wanted to engage in any more pointless killing.
The sunset faded, but the little submarine remained floating there in the red sea.CHAPTER 2
THE PARROT AND THE BOY
The 15th of August 1945
In the foothills of the mountains, some distance from the town, a boy and his parrot were living in a small air-raid shelter. The boy had just turned eight years old, but the age of his parrot, which the boy's sailor father had brought back from a southern isle as a gift for him, was unknown.
The parrot had a yellow crown-like crest and a touch of red at the base of its wings, as if bleeding, but otherwise it was covered all over with soft blue feathers. From its ugly, wrinkled feet you might think it was quite old, but then the mischievous look in its eye was altogether childlike, and at any rate parrots were said to live for a hundred years so there was no way of knowing. But the boy, who was an only child, had decided that it was his little sister.
For the past couple of weeks, the boy and the parrot had been hiding day and night in the darkness of the shelter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cake Tree in the Ruins"
Copyright © 2003 Akiyuki Nosaka.
Excerpted by permission of Pushkin Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine, 9,
The Parrot and the Boy, 22,
The Mother That Turned into a Kite, 33,
The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl, 45,
The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach, 58,
The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl, 71,
The Cake Tree in the Ruins, 83,
The Elephant and Its Keeper, 94,
A Soldier's Family, 108,
My Home Bunker, 121,
A Balloon in August, 134,
The Soldier and the Horse, 146,