by Brittany Schmidt
“I’m off!” Hina yelled.
“Be careful!” Her mother called from the kitchen, stirring a new pot of warm, savory broth for the evening’s late-night special. Pork bones mixed with heaps of smuggled salt boiled into a veil of steam over her withered face. “Don’t forget your umbrella!”
Hina was through the door of her family’s soba shop, inches from closing it shut and racing down the steps when her father’s low-tuned radio chimed in (almost as if her father had never left; the small brown box was often backing up her mother’s previous thoughts and observations): This is the Nippon Hoso Kyokai news hour. The time is 8:10, Monday, August 6th. In Hiroshima: Clear skies today, warm, and sunshine.
Hina rolled her eyes, gesturing toward the weather report. “I don’t need it. It’s not going to rain today; there isn’t a cloud in the sky!”
Her mother’s response was silence.
She didn’t need to see her mother’s expression or hear the unsatisfied huff under her breath to know what was going to happen next. Before even giving her mother a chance to chastise or scold, chopsticks in hand as she scattered broth everywhere, Hina tromped back inside, dug out her umbrella from the stand, and kissed her mother goodbye.
“I’m going to be late. See you after school!”
With a reluctant smile, her mother muttered her goodbyes.
The soba shop steps creaked as Hina hustled down them, hoisting her bag high on her shoulders. She spun upon her heel, feeling an acquired need to take in the secretly camouflaged restaurant one more time. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply, allowing the scents of peppered broth, onion, and shiitake mushrooms to envelope her. These were all core ingredients to the perfect bowl of Shina soba, or as her father called it, ramen. With a final note of pickled plum faint in the air, a poetic song in her heart, she made her way into the city.
Growing up, Hina had resented the shop and everything it stood for. At school she had only been known as “Ramen Girl” or “Waitress,” no one had ever bothered to learn her name. Children and teachers alike would tease her at lunch—“What, you aren’t having soba today? No ramen?” “Sold out at the shop?” Often classmates would only partner with her on class projects in order to have a free lunch the next time their families stopped by. It wasn’t until her first year of university that Hina came into her rebel phase, not towards the restaurant, but rather against all the teasing, the snickering, and the backhanded comments. It was old news, and the summer of her ninth year Hina had discovered an outlet for all that aggression and pent up anger: the art of making ramen.
In an ironic sense of timing, ramen, once the bane of her existence, became the comfort she longed to run into. The savory smell of the broth, soft, lamian noodles, and chopped spectrum of steamed and raw vegetables that once made her sick to her stomach had become the sole indulgence to lift her spirits. Of course, this had to be balanced with the forced art of home economics and an intense nationalistic regime, as per the ever escalating educational curriculum thanks to this dreaded war. At the height of uncertainty, food became scarce and diminished to controlled rations, and the operation of restaurants was seen by the government as a luxury. Left with no choice, many restaurants and businesses all over Japan had been forced to close their doors by day, a portion becoming illegal operations by night, with Hina’s family being no exception. Customers who could afford ramen were ushered in beneath the pale light of a weary moon, and yakuza, organized gangs, occasionally smuggled in stockpiled ingredients.
Hina glanced up at the clear sky above. It was a perfect day to ride a bike, or fly a kite, or to simply skip school—an option that would come with the risk of having a military officer inquiring about her absence at school. Tensions had been high for the past X amount of months, since Hina could remember, but especially since a few years ago, 1940, when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.
Hina decided it was worth the risk. It was to be a culinary day.
In order for her to proceed with her plans, she’d have to take the long route to the other side of town. Hina was unnerved by the sight of two militia men passing by, and another coming around a corner. She gripped her umbrella tightly, unable to take her eyes off the walking uniforms, unable to make eye contact with them; yet, they passed without incident.
As she continued her walk, she hadn’t realized the grip with which she held her umbrella until an ache pulsed within her fingers. Hina eased her grip, blinking again toward the sky above. An umbrella on a day full of sunshine, she thought, shaking her head. What on Earth could her mother have been thinking? She often had hunches when it came to the weather; claimed it was a hereditary gift, a Sato specialty; yet today was the first day she couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hina was halfway down the block from the old cooking facility when the sky unexpectedly darkened, as though her mother’s intuition was coming back to haunt her. A strange sensation shot through her system, a sudden drop in pressure, and a chill inside that made her shiver. On reflex, the worn umbrella in her hands flew open, and she looked up, peering just beneath the fabric’s lining.
It started as a dot in the sky, but ramen still consumed her thoughts: some round speck that reminded her of a bean sprout, then a chunk of spinach, or perhaps cabbage or nori, that gained speed and plummeted toward her. Now, it was a shiitake mushroom, Hina thought, with the power of chili sauce or imported spices, sharp, fiery, blazing—