Shinbu Unit 99

by Takamichi Okubo

The enemy is approaching Okinawa,
the officer says. The only way to turn the
situation around is Special Attacks.

On the sheet of paper Nakajima
receives are three choices: I ardently
desire to participate; I desire to
participate; I do not desire to participate.
He hides the paper from the others and
with a trembling hand circles the last
choice.

Back in his barracks, Nakajima adds
another haiku to his notebook, only to
scratch it out until the paper rips. For the
past ten years, he’s asked the same
question: How can he condense his entire
life into seventeen syllables?

The next day, Nakajima watches as
the officer writes the names of the
volunteers on the blackboard, giving each
a number. The last name to appear is
under number seventeen, and it’s
Nakajima’s.

Within a week, his unit is transferred
to the base in the southernmost tip of
Kyushu. Nakajima continues to write
haiku in the darkness of the barracks until
the day of the mission. Nothing he writes
satisfies him, except the one line he does
not blot out.

              The end—a petal

Nakajima’s unit covers the six
hundred kilometers to Okinawa in ninety
minutes. Even before they see any enemy
ships, bullets rain down on them.

Nakajima swings to the right but the
enemy plane clings to him. He
nosedives—falls, falls, falls—and levels
at the last moment so he’s flying
dangerously close to the sea.

Pillars of water splash up all around
him. He looks around frantically for an
enemy ship. His life, his sacrifice, must
have some meaning.

Ahead, a battleship. Steely-gray and
enormous and puffing black smoke as it
unleashes a storm of flashing light.

On the radio key, he taps out his
initials—dit, dah, dit, dah, dah. Then the
target—dit, dah for a battle ship—and a
signal that he’s getting ready to attack—
dit, dit, dah, dit, dit. Five signals, then
seven.

Pain explodes in his shoulder and
thigh. His wing blooms in orange and
belches out smoke. He can still fly.

He thinks of the men who are no
longer with him, him the seventeenth
syllable of this haiku called Shinbu Unit
99. He thinks of home.

              Of cherry blossom falling

The enemy ship draws closer. He
sees people milling about on deck, the
barrels of anti-aircraft guns recoiling.

Against instructions, he sends four
meaningless long signals—dah, dah, dah,
dah—before pressing down on the knob,
signaling he is attacking.

The end of this long signal, the
seventeenth, means his death, and to the
commanders back at the base and to the
rest of the country, another enemy
destroyed.

A gun on the enemy ship pivots
toward him. Holding down the knob he
screams, to keeps his hand steady on the
controls.

He sees sakura blossom, in pale pink.

              On a deck of steel.

Takamichi Okubo is a native of Tokyo, Japan, and though he’s spent half of his life in the States, he’d like to think he’s more of a samurai than a cowboy, as he eats sushi with a hachimaki headband and shouts “hai!’ after every successful attempt at mastication. He received his A.B. in philosophy from Princeton University and is currently an MFA candidate at Indiana University. This is his first publication and he can’t for the life of him decide what to do with the first check he’s ever received for his writing. Also, he proudly doesn’t own a phone.

Author’s Note

    The story’s central theme revolves around the idea of compression in the form of haiku. The protagonist of the story is a haiku poet obsessed with compressing his life into thirteen syllables, and both the content and the formatting of the story reinforce this obsession. Also, this story was, fittingly, a compression of an 8,000-word story that was strengthened significantly by the process.
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