Since it’s very nearly Halloweenie, I cooked up an extra special treat for all of you in the cauldron of my brain-pan.  A story of madness and horror served up from a few tender morsels of my innocence I picked up from the scorched stone of the past.

Hiroshima.  I’m there with a dozen or so of overseas students, the married couple acting as our American go-betweens and chaperones, and one or two Japanese guides who for the life of me I can’t remember.  I think they might have been locals associated with our school, because I seem to recall us getting a new guide in each city we visited.

Time to see the sights, day one is an arranged tour.  Specifically, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and any nearby associated landmarks and exhibits.  Later that night, we return to the youth hostel to meet a survivor and listen to her stories.  At the time, I thought it was strange how the first part was given to us open-ended, without structure.  But now I see the wisdom in this approach.  We all have to come to knowledge of this sort of thing in our own way.

I had to admit I was looking forward to the whole thing, it seemed so compelling.  Here’s my chance to say I visited ground zero and had an unforgettable experience.  And wow, I figure the survivor will tell a pretty horrible tale and I’ll get the inside scoop on what it was like.  Godzilla was created by atomic tests, and Godzilla is awesome, so it’ll be cool right?

Leading with my chin.

We sort of separate into smaller groups along our usual lines of affinity and wander around.  There’s the monument to Sadako and the thousand paper cranes (called the Childrens’ Peace Monument), a girl who grew sick from the radiation of the explosion and tried to make a thousand paper cranes.  Legend has it if you can make a thousand, you are granted a wish.  She managed to make 644 before she died.

I dive into studying the monuments in the park, and we soon all split up.  There’s so much to take in visually, let alone reflect upon for meaning while still being alert to cultural references you are generally ignorant of.

I study a sculpture whose subject involves the ruined Industrial Promotion Hall across the river.  The hall is an iconic structure associated with the center of the blast, known as “the a-bomb dome” because of the framework on the roof which survived.  The sculpture is set up in such a way that when viewed you see an arch over the framework and a fire beneath the dome.

The icon, across the river, separated from us by time, yet plainly visible and still approachable.  An arch over the dome, a bow of promise and a bridge completing two sides.  A fire beneath, on the ground and beneath the ground, a hope and a light that what is dreamed will be.  That’s just scratching the surface of what’s before me, not even taking into account the text panels.

Everyone is quiet and respectful, there’s a strange sense of solemnity here even though it’s a clear sunny day.  Even the kids are subdued.  I try to stay focused, but every piece of art, every monument arrests you with the knowledge that this place is it, man.  This is where the deal went down.

I imagine that this might be the psychic after-effect hanging like a cloud over the place, and it’s just another interesting and cool part of the city.  I tell myself that I’m losing interest in the park, and the cultural nuances are beyond me anyway.  Time to have fun and leave this depressing park.  At least, that’s what I have to keep telling myself.

Don’t turn around.

So I cross the river using one of the many bridges to go visit the town hall.  I stand next to a plaque that says I’m standing at the spot where 500 feet above me the bomb exploded.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my best friend’s father designed a set of replacement doors that go with the hall, which is closed to the public.  I would have tried to muster up some pride for my best friend having a hand in things, however obliquely.

Looking up at the sky, I feel a weight pushing down on me.  That nervous feeling is coming back again.  I move along and make my way to the peace museum to meet up with the group.  I heard there’s a block of stone with the mark of a vaporized human burned onto it, cool!

For a moment, I’m actually glad to see the group again, even the barfly (as I called him).  The goal of waiting to get our tickets and move into the long line gives me something to distract the growing dread creeping up my spine.  No no no this is going to be cool, do you hear me, cool!  I don’t even notice how quiet my fellow students are.

The line is like a chain of souls entering hell, rising up stairs into the museum (we are no longer on earth), and then the facts begin to roll by.  Nothing garish or colorful like the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian.  A long winding series of interconnected display cases in the form of a timeline, winding back and forth through the museum, telling stories, showing artifacts.  I forget to take pictures, or maybe they aren’t allowed, I can’t remember.

What I do remember is the white wall stained by the black, radioactive rain that fell afterward.  Kelloids, strange tumors that had never been seen before, cut from bodies and placed in jars for display.  Charred pieces of masonry and iron twisted and transformed by incredible heat.  X-rays of glass embedded in human organs by explosive force.

The block of stone with the human imprint, a step taken from a bank entrance, is not there.  It’s been moved to another part of the museum cordoned off from the public.  But the pictures are there, along with others.  Two humans turned into a pair of shadowy streaks on the surface of a stone block of a bridge not unlike the one I crossed to reach the dome.

A couple?  Father and son?  Two best friends forever?  Take your pick and it probably happened.  These are just the ones they found.  The pictures and text are bad enough, maybe it’s good I didn’t see the real thing.  A human being reduced to a smear on stone.

There’s a guest book, which I sign, writing something enthusiastic in support of the museum’s purpose.  But I’m on automatic now, free of the line in the last section of the tour where you break free and begin to wander downstairs and back to earth.  Walking on a mass grave, a loud tumult in my ears.  I’m in shock, and it doesn’t matter.

I hook up with the barfly and the bohemian girl he likes, who hangs out with him because he’s not boring.  Probably the people I’m closest to in this group, which is pretty sad.  All three of us wander out of the park into the city.

We don’t care where we’re going.  The ghosts are everywhere.