A Patch of Dirt in Paradise
by Lee Budar-Danoff
“REMEMBER–You, as an American, owe it to yourself, and your family, and your country to know as much as you can about living through a disaster.” Survival For You And Your Family, Honolulu, Hawaii, October 1, 1961.
An old Japanese woman knelt on the broken sidewalk along the street where I was assigned to deliver water. With a garden hoe and trowel she tended rectangular plots in which palm trees no longer stood. A large woven hat protected her face from the mid-day sun but didn’t conceal her splotched skin and burn blister scars. Sweat dripped off her nose. She ignored it.
One sweltering day I could no longer bear to see her hunched over, grubbing in the dirt. I stopped my bike to offer her a jug of potable water from the trailer I towed.
“Take a rest and drink. Even survivors deserve a break,” I said.
“If the attack should occur while you are in open country, jump into a ditch or crawl into a culvert. Lie down and stay there until the blast and heat waves have passed,” she said as she watered the finger-deep trenches she’d dug in the ground, taking only small sips for herself.
Did she fear another bomb? Despite the heat, I shivered.
“Hey water-girl, you won’t get sense out of Midori.”
I looked up. A man in a faded aloha shirt waved to me from the second floor balcony of the deteriorating apartment building behind us.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Before, well, she was an agronomist. She taught survival strategies to her neighbors in the evenings.” The man scratched his patchy scalp. “Now, all she does is repeat instructions from the damned pamphlet.”
Locals lined up for water. As I handed out filled jugs in exchange for empties, Midori moved from one patch to the next, turning the now-damp soil. Rain used to fall every day in the valley. Tradewinds, formerly cool, blew hot and dry. If Midori wasn’t on the list for rations of agricultural water, I’d ask for her to be added.
Midori brought me the empty jug and I insisted she take a second full one.
“You will not be able to purify your water if it should become contaminated with radioactivity,” she said, before shuffling through the glass doors of the apartment building.
I rode away, the bottles clacking as the trailer bumped over the cracked asphalt. The treatment plant where I worked mornings had reverse osmosis filtration systems and micro-absorbents. The water was as pure as we could make it.
The days and weeks Midori spent on her knees seemed wasted, as the plants she coaxed out of the dirt, first from sweet potato cuttings and, two months later, from soybean seeds, sprouted slowly, grudgingly. Her body shrank, her gray hair thinned, yet her spirit never flagged as she tended green shoots with tight leaves waiting to open to the sun. When she caught me staring, I blushed. Midori inclined her head and patted the concrete next to her. Together, we pulled weeds.
Cargo ships no longer arrived, the promised shipments of survival crackers never reached us, and communications with the mainland failed. Alone, on our island thousands of miles from the rest of the world, every effort to grow food mattered.
On the balcony, Al strummed a ukulele to entertain neighbors waiting in my line, alternating Elvis Presley songs with Hawaiian tunes. Children danced the hula, and everyone clapped. Even Midori paused her work to sway with the music. Efforts to help us forget, to join us in the spirit of aloha, also mattered.
After four months, Midori’s soybean pods and sweet potatoes were ready to harvest. Not one plant had been stolen, or destroyed in fear. Instead, people with bags waited respectfully for Midori.
“We’re all family, now,” said Al.
Neighbors traded canned goods or medicine for Midori’s fresh produce.
“Every family should build up a two-week supply of emergency food. It should be kept in your shelter, or in your evacuation kit,” she told each person, and everyone assured her they would follow her suggestions. They understood, as I came to comprehend, her psychological reliance on old civil defense directives.
I never asked for anything when I delivered her water. I had no goods of my own to trade.
One day, Midori wasn’t there. Only stubble filled her plots. I handed out water, missing the small beauty her presence created along the street.
“Leilani!” Al called down to me. “Midori left you something.”
He brought me a cardboard box tied with string.
“Where is she?” I asked.
Al bowed his head and the little hope that had bloomed for a moment in my heart withered away.
I put the package in my trailer and pedaled home. Alone in my room, I pulled the string and opened the box. The pungent scent of fresh produce rose up and I rubbed my eyes before pulling out the cloth bag full of potatoes and bright green soybeans. Midori’s trowel and small hoe lay in the box, spotlessly clean. Inside a clear plastic bag was her copy of Survival For You And Your Family.
Precise handwriting filled the margins of her survival pamphlet. Notes on post-bomb gardening techniques filled the bottom half of the last page. She’d discovered that soybeans would not only grow in irradiated soil, but would produce a defensive protein that could protect humans from radiation disease. Sweet potatoes would grow well, though smaller and softer. But nothing she learned would save her. I bent over the box and cried. Midori couldn’t help anymore, but she’d shown us, me, what to do.
Tucked inside the manual was a note in shaky handwriting.
“The most important thing to remember is that you yourself are going to have to be ready to take care of yourself IF YOU WANT TO LIVE.”
Lee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.